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China row over Forbidden City 'club for the rich'

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

image captionThe Chinese authorities say the Forbidden City is not being used as a top-class private club for the rich

Chinese officials have denied the Beijing palace that was once home to China's emperors is being used as a club for the rich.

Chinese media reports claim wealthy people can buy access to a restored section of the Forbidden City to entertain family and friends.

The reports have led to widespread criticism on the internet.

This is more bad publicity for the palace, following a break-in last week in which valuable items were stolen.

Media reports suggest wealthy people can buy membership to the exclusive club for $150,000 (£92,600).

This allows them access to the Forbidden City's Jianfu Palace, which translates as Palace of Established Happiness.

The Jianfu Palace was originally built in 1740 by the Emperor Qianlong. This section of the Chinese emperors' former home was destroyed in 1923 by fire started in mysterious circumstances.

It was painstakingly restored six years ago using money donated by a Hong Kong businessman.

Private club

An anonymous web user has posted online what they say is an application form to join the club.

The fax number on the bottom of the form is registered to a company that is in charge of day-to-day maintenance of the Jianfu Palace.

There has been intense speculation about the story on the internet, with many critical comments.

Rui Chenggang, a national TV presenter, wrote on his blog: "A foreign tour guide proudly told me that he just arranged a family dinner party for an American billionaire."

The Forbidden City authorities deny the claims.

They say the Jianfu Palace is used for exhibitions, seminars and press conferences - and to welcome visiting dignitaries.

"It is not, and could not, be used as a so-called top-class private club for rich people," read at statement on the Forbidden City's official blog.

The historic site already finds itself uncomfortably in the spotlight.

Last week a thief stole seven items that had been borrowed from a private collection in Hong Kong. Officials admitted to a lapse in security.

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