A new menace is stalking some of the oldest and most beautiful spots in China. It’s not what you think. The developer’s bulldozer or the logger’s axe may often fit the bill in villain terms. But you can add another culprit to the list: UNESCO World Heritage status.
The champagne was flowing last month when two more Chinese sites were awarded World Heritage Status (the temple complex near Dengfeng, and a patch of rivers and mountains in Danxia). That is the maximum quota for new listings annually. But Chinese officials want to pick up more spots on the heritage listings. Currently, the country ranks third (narrowly behind by Italy and Spain). “Our line-up of sites for listing goes through to the next century,” Guo Zhan, an official at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) told Time Weekly magazine.
In theory, a listing is supposed to bring strict protection for historic buildings and the surrounding environment. It doesn’t come cheap. Henan province reportedly spent Rmb800 million getting the Dengfeng temple complex approved. Six provinces spent even more on the Danxia park, clumping together to invest Rmb1 billion. The financial burden was onerous. Hunan’s Xinning County is said to have spent Rmb400 million, twice its annual revenue, so that a local mountain would qualify to be part of the listing. “To move a province-level road 17km out of the scenic area cost hundreds of millions,” one official told the magazine.
That then leads to some of the problems. “The condition of the other local governments is not likely to be much better than Hunan’s,” warns He Bolin, deputy director of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies. “Since they have already spent more than Rmb1 billion, they may not have enough funds left in their budgets to [maintain the area] properly.”
So why do it? For a local official getting a site onto the UNESCO list is about much more than just preservation, or even prestige. Instead it’s hoped that a listed site ends up being a cash cow. Ticket sales skyrocket, tourism booms and outside investment comes flooding in.
And there’s the rub. “Won’t such a tag attract a lot more tourists than the site can handle? Won’t these tourists create pollution beyond imagination? Won’t commercialisation change the distinct character of a site?” asked Liu Ren, a China Daily reader, after the latest heritage sites were announced.
“There are heritage sites that are very old, such as the Hanging Monastery in Shanxi, which could collapse under the heavy footsteps of tourists,” worries Quip Fang, research scholar with the Jiuding Public Affairs Research Institute. “Sadly, officials seem unconcerned about the long-term survival of such sites.”
One of the best examples of visitor overload is the old town of Lijiang, which joined the UNESCO list in 1997. The once picturesque mountain settlement in Yunnan Province is said to be unrecognisable by those who had seen its pre-World Heritage days, disappearing into a sea of karaoke bars and fast-food joints.
“Lijiang has lost its charm,” laments Tong Minkang, deputy director of SACH. “Ancient Naxi music has been replaced by the sounds of [pop singer] Jay Chou and frantic late-night bars. At this rate the World Heritage tag will sooner or later bring world shame.”
Despite the drawbacks, the ‘World Heritage’ dilemma isn’t a simple one for conservationists. Better perhaps the unappetising prospect of welcoming ‘a billion tourists’ than to witness historic locations disappear completely to a wave of apartment blocks and shopping malls.
The dramatic decline of Beijing’s ancient hutongs attests to the dangers. “Bulldozers have razed many historic blocks,” Shan Jixiang, head of SACH complains. “Much of the traditional architecture that could have been passed down for generations… has been relentlessly torn down.”
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