World Heritage about conservation, not cash

By Xu Qinduo Source:Global Times Published: 2012-11-14 19:20:04


llustration: Liu Rui
llustration: Liu Rui

The eagerness to get a UNESCO World Heritage designation has only grown in today's China after the country began to make applications less than 30 years ago. If anything, it's picking up speed.

Recently we've seen a collective bid by 10 towers such as the Yellow Crane Tower in Hubei Province and Yue Yang Tower in Hunan Province, a plan to include the Mao Zedong Mausoleum into the Beijing central axis bid for world heritage, the Grand Canal proposal, and even an attempt to have mahjong listed as an intangible cultural heritage.

To be fair, there are solid reasons to apply for the title. Cultural heritage is often unique and irreplaceable, and there's a need to preserve for future generations.

As professor Wang Yansong from Wuhan University said in an interview with the People's Daily Online, "It is worthy to spend a large amount of money for a world heritage declaration, because these historical and cultural heritages are invaluable assets. For example, China's Danxia Landforms are non-reproducible and regenerative."

The Danxia Landforms are a unique type of landscape in the southern part of China, formed by red sandstone and characterized by steep cliffs.

Behind the pursuit of World Heritage status is the hope that global recognition and worldwide awareness will help preserve certain cultural or natural sites.

As a matter of fact, a site with World Heritage status often benefits a lot from the process of application, including research, enhanced management, investment in infrastructure and publicity, which might not have existed if not for the World Heritage listing.

As a result, strong enthusiasm is demonstrated by some local governments in selecting and submitting sites for World Heritage status. However, when enthusiasm turns into a fever, you know there's something unhealthy going on.

It seems the focus of bidding for the World Heritage status is almost exclusively about economic opportunities.

A World Heritage designation is more often than not a cash cow for local governments.

This is putting the cart before the horse and ignoring the original purpose of World Heritage Sites, preservation. 

A recent case has been the plan by a few local governments to package 10 towers to jointly apply for a World Heritage listing. But at least one of the buildings is, in the strict sense, nonexistent as it was totally destroyed some 700 years ago in the early Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The new building is a replica built with two elevators only a few years ago. People cannot help but question how much heritage there is at such a site.

Applications for World Heritage status can be misleading and sometimes be abused.  When rushing for World Heritage status, people tend to forget or ignore that a designation doesn't always lead to a rise in tourism.

A survey by China Youth Daily in 2010 showed over 53 percent of nearly 2,000 respondents said they would not travel to a place solely because it is a World Heritage Site. 

Besides, the funding for the bidding process can be surprisingly large. Take the Danxia Landforms, where the total amount spent on the application surpasses 1 billion yuan ($160 million). 450 million ($72 million) of that came from Xinning county, Hunan Province, whose yearly fiscal income in 2008 stood only at 200 million yuan. How to close that gap remains an unanswered question for the local government.

Following successful bidding, the local governments are often required to continue investing for the maintenance of the site. That could present a challenge for them, especially during tough economic times.

In some cases, bidding for recognition seems to be simply for bidding's sake, like the mahjong bid.

The earliest mahjong tile dates to 1880, and the game was probably devised in the 19th century, based on earlier card games, but was outlawed by the PRC because of its ties to gambling. It wasn't until the 1980s that it was played openly again on the mainland, but it continued to be played throughout the world during this time.

The proposal for mahjong to get intangible heritage status smacks more of vanity than genuine concern to preserve.

After all, for those already protected sites, World Heritage status is nothing more than a feather in their cap. People need to remember that World Heritage status prioritizes preservation, not exploitation.

The author is a commentator on current affairs with China Radio International.




Guo Jia, a resident from Hebei Province

Administrators and local governments apply for a World Heritage title for economic benefits, because the title can help them receive more funds from the central authorities.

However, the maintenance of the sites and their ability to manage visitors are not fully considered. The development and protection of the sites should be given the same importance.

Zhao Yue, a Shanghai resident

I feel cynical about local governments' chasing such useless titles. The money they spend on the bid should rather be used to build facilities in these historical sites to attract more tourists. These sites should serve the public rather than being a tool for making money.

Chen Wentao, a Chinese citizen studying in the UK

The acclamation of a World Heritage title will prevent other countries from taking advantage of our culture. It is one way to protect our culture, and also shows respect for history.

Meanwhile, it is a good opportunity to develop local tourism, boost the local economy and promote Chinese culture.

Nonetheless, cultural protection does not necessarily rely on claiming a World Heritage title.

Local governments can draw experience from the UK, where many tourist sites are protected and funded by charities like the National Trust.

Li Haihong, a white-collar worker in Shanghai

I think local governments' applications for World Heritage title is merely to show off their political achievements.

Making a claim needs money, both for promoting the application and to pay for inspection visits. But taxpayers' money may end up being spent in other ways by local governments, resulting in corruption.

Tong Qing'an, an editor in Beijing

It's understandable. It's a trend, like many students going to the US or the UK to study. They may not really learn anything, but their overseas experience will add points to their future development.

Yang Xiaopeng, a white-collar worker in Beijing

I believe it is because local governments want to explore tourism resources. Of course there are some sites that really deserve the title and should be protected.

A national evaluation system is needed so that local governments will not chase such titles blindly.

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