World Heritage in China

City dwellers across China are accustomed to seeing the dreaded chāi () character appear suddenly on the doors and walls of ancient housing; an eight-stroke red daub that in a reversal of the Passover calls down the Angel of Death in the form of a bulldozer.

But around China at the nation’s more venerable monuments another symbol seems to have much the same function as chāi, although the final result of its appearance is not rubble but the replacement of reality with replica. Here, the announcement of imminent doom takes the form of a plaque showing a historic site’s inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The World Heritage Convention is now more than 30 years old and has more than 180 signatory nations, called ‘States Parties’. It’s full of thrilling ideas rendered leaden by legalese and by the compromises necessary to gain wide-ranging international agreement.

Most noble is the notion that there are both man-made and natural sites of such great significance that they should be regarded as part of the heritage of all mankind, and that their preservation is a matter of collective responsibility.

There are now 981 sites listed world-wide, and the addition of new ones causes little stir in most countries. Few Britons, for instance, can name their most recent listing (Gorham’s Cave Complex, 2016), and it’s doubtful whether the inhabitants of Venice detected any increase in tourism volumes after their much-trampled city was listed in 1987.

In China, however, gain UNESCO recognition for your site and you’ve won the tourism jackpot. Chinese tourism officials have made the World Heritage listing process a party not to preserving Old China but to the mismanagement of the move from Old to New.

In a society given since at least the 12th century to making lists of approved scenic spots and which is still citing the favourite views of the 17th and 18th century Kāngxī and Qiánlóng emperors, the UNESCO World Heritage sites have become the crème de la crème. They are superior to National Key Scenic Areas and even to National AAAA Level Tourist Scenic Spots, not least since they are taken as evidence that foreigners agree with what the Chinese themselves so often repeat: that Hàn Chinese culture is superior and of greater longevity than any Western culture. Each new listing is given widespread publicity, and this guarantees that revenues will rise by several multiples.

Around the globe the list’s early entries unsurprisingly included many of the wonders of the world, such as Egypt’s Giza pyramids and France’s Chartres Cathedral. Beijing’s Forbidden City and sections of the Great Wall were amongst the first Chinese sites in 1987.

But in time many entries crept in that if they were ‘so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity’, as UNESCO guidelines put it, then most of humanity, even most of its well-read and well-travelled sections, were unaware of them.

One later Chinese addition was the little-known forested valleys of Sichuan’s Jiǔzhàigōu region, which in 1991 had a mere 170,000 a year. However, this was still a figure that the advisory body assessing the site’s 1992 application for World Heritage listing considered worrying. Of greater concern was a projected increase to 500,000 visitors a year after World Heritage recognition, considered far beyond saturation point and likely to cause substantial damage.

Nevertheless, despite reservations about ‘the growing human impact’, Jiǔzhàigōu was added to the World Heritage list that same year, and the area’s managers set about publicising this to the full. Six years later a UNESCO inspection complained that the site was congested with tourists, but the administrators still went on to leverage World Heritage listing into a total of 1,19 million visitors a year in 2001, more than double the figure considered to be beyond the park’s capacity at the period of application ten years earlier.

Nevertheless, in a self-assessment paper for UNESCO in 2002, site officials congratulated themselves for planning to cap visitor numbers at 12,000 a day, although this so-called cap would in fact allow for a further near-tripling of the existing excessive figure to 4.3 million visitors a year.

A similar process has taken place at the historic town of Lìjiāng, in the mountains of the southwestern province of Yunnan, with its stone-paved streets of unusual Nàxī minority architecture.

Jing Feng, UNESCO’s Programme Specialist for Asia Pacific, personally campaigned for the 1997 accession of Lìjiāng to the list.

‘I worked on the documentation and succeeded in getting the nomination,’ he says. But as a result, visitor volumes leapt from between 3000 and 5000 a year in 1996 to 4.3 million in 2005.

‘I visited in June 2006 and my experience was really too bad,’ he says, with a weary shake of his head almost audible down the line from his office in Paris.

Worse, the town had been severely damaged in an earthquake just before listing, and rather than reconstruct the demolished buildings, the authorities went on to ‘improve’ on them by replacing some of the ethnic minority housing with some in a more mainstream Chinese style, scoring the herringbone pattern of traditional brickwork into cement rather than replacing it, and driving some residents away in order to construct a previously non-existent palace.

Even the traditional costume of the minority Nàxī people was redesigned, and wearing it was made compulsory for those working in the hospitality industry, regardless of their ethnicity.

Recently, even the authorities have recognised that the old town’s capacity to absorb tourists has been exceeded, and this has reportedly led them to start creating more of it. If this is conservation, then it’s some new meaning of the word unfamiliar to dictionaries. And at site after site there’s a similar story.

By 1999 the walled city of Píngyáo in Shānxī Province, little-known until its inscription in 1997, was already engaged in recreating its yámen, the mansion-office of the mandarin from imperial days. Inspired by the success of Lìjiāng, it allowed businesses to rent bicycles for riding on top of its impressive Ming dynasty walls, and even cars were allowed on them.

In 2004 a section of the wall collapsed, and according to a report in the Hong Kong Standard, ‘The first fear of local officials was that UNESCO might withdraw Píngyáo’s listing,’ so they tried to blame the collapse on the poor quality of the original construction. But local residents could be heard to claim that the walls might still be intact had it not been for World Heritage involvement.

In 1998 at the Western Qīng Tombs southwest of Beijing grey cement had been smeared onto deteriorating brickwork and scored with lines to replace their pattern, and strident modern paintwork was everywhere. In one corner of the site, the China Funeral Association had been allowed to start commercial modern burials at premium rates: the nearer to last Qīng emperor Aisin Gioro Henry Pǔyí’s remains, the, the higher the price.

Optimists might have hoped that listing in 2000 would prevent more of the same, but in response to the resulting demand by 2002 new access roads had been driven across the site’s green spaces, and the recreation of further halls had begun, with entrance prices rising accordingly.

In 2004 a hole was casually knocked through the wall of one tomb complex to shorten the route for transporting materials for a face-lift. Several of the halls were still functioning as offices and residences for the very officials supposed to be protecting them. Their proximity to the site wasn’t obviously adding to its security, since peasants nearby were openly selling fragments of ancient decorative tile to visitors. UNESCO documents state that the World Heritage process should involve local people, but this probably isn’t what it has in mind.

At Qūfù (inscribed 1994), the final resting place of Confucius, wall paintings and statuary were damaged beyond repair when cleaners washed and scrubbed them. Despite many of their number claiming descent from the Sage himself, the local populace was reported to be angry not at the loss of its heritage, but at the threat to tourism income.

At the Qīng emperors’ summer resort at Chéngdé stone plaques announcing World Heritage listing have been set into the very walls the process is supposed to protect — a disheartening irony but one perfectly representing China’s approach to conservation.

Bizarrely there seems to be little that the World Heritage Committee can do to ensure good conservation practice. Its main carrot is aid, and its main stick is the threat to move a site to a separate World Heritage in Danger list or to remove it from listing altogether. But there are problems with both.

Its tiny budget of only a few million US dollars a year, spread between its own running costs and the care of around 1000 sites, makes this carrot little more than a bite-size snack. Jing Feng has just four staff to cover the 45 countries and more than 170 sites in his Asia Pacific region.

Tim Craddock, British ambassador to UNESCO, points out that the money in the Committee’s budget isn’t the only money, however. ‘There are extra-budgetary contributions from Italy, the UK’s done work in the Caribbean, there’s another project to help Africa, and there’s special money to war zones, and from other sources.’

He claims simply being listed helps to attract assistance. ‘The country gets the brand, it gets the world recognition, which gives it the ability to say “We’ve got a problem with this site, and it’s on the World Heritage list. Can you help?”’

In China if money’s the problem it’s that there’s too much of it from gate receipts, and that precious little of it (and at one Great Wall site reputedly none of it) goes on true conservation.

Lack of re-investment ought to have the World Heritage Committee waving its stick. There are procedures for moving deteriorating sites to a World Heritage List in Danger, or removing them from the list altogether, but according to insiders a sterile legal debate has been taking place for some years as to whether the Committee can list a site as endangered without the agreement of the State Party concerned.

The problem is summarised in a note from the press office of the UK government’s Department of Media, Culture, and Sport:

‘The UK’s legal advice is that State Party agreement is needed for inscription of a Site on the ‘in danger’ list. It is the Government’s view therefore that States Parties may reserve the right to refuse in danger listing. Other states (including Canada, Australia and the USA) concur with this view.’

It appears that the Committee’s slap in the face remains little more than a pat on the cheek. Or, as the Chinese might say, the threat of downgrading or delisting is a paper tiger.

So it was surprising when in July 2006, during a meeting of the World Heritage Committee held in New Zealand, reporters from a little-known southern China newspaper, the Jiāngnán Daily, quoted a Chinese official as saying that six Chinese sites were about to be moved onto the World Heritage in Danger list.

The Nàxī minority’s city of Lìjiāng was unsurprisingly one of them, and the rest were the Three Parallel Rivers region in Yúnnán, Lhasa’s Potala Palace, and the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven in Běijīng.

When assessors visited the the Three Parallel Rivers site in 1992, information that a cascade of 13 dams was to be built in or near the conservation area was cynically withheld from them. The region was described in one UNESCO report as ‘the epicentre of Chinese bio-diversity’. No sooner was the site listed the following year when news of the dams came out.

Surely instant delisting would have been the only response, but at successive meetings, year after year, the Committee lamented the inadequate or non-existent responses to requests for plans, information, and impact assessments, and made fresh demands of the same kind. It was also discovered that mining was taking place within the protected area.

The Chinese meanwhile suggested the border of the park be redrawn, offered to reduce the number of dams from 13 to eight, and denied that approval for any dams had actually been given, despite press reports to the contrary.

In Lhasa there had been repeated criticism of the destruction of vernacular housing within the protected area around the Potala Palace and neighbouring Jokhang Temple, anounting to as much as two thirds of the buildings within a five-mile radius, their occupants driven out (also a problem at Lìjiāng and Píngyáo) without consultation.

The Committee’s response was to send an investigative team, repeatedly request documentation that either didn’t arrive or arrived long after the event, and then to despatch a lucky group of local officials off to Portugal and France to learn good conservation practice.

In Běijīng, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace, all sites of global fame, were endangered by the awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing, each being prettified to put its best face forward for the television crews that probably outnumbered the athletes.

Heritage listing also requires that international standards for conservation are met, and that no work is undertaken without first consulting the Committee’s experts. This is a requirement completely ignored by Chinese officials, with new building planned within the Forbidden City, and unapproved renovation including a mass replacement of roofs with inauthentically uniform yellow tiles.

Even after this had been duly documented by an inspection, the government’s position appeared in that window to the grey corridors of the Chinese official mind, China Daily, which carried the claim of an official at the Summer Palace administrative office that ‘only traditional materials were used, and national standards followed, during the renovation of the Forbidden City’.

So if it was surprising that movement of Chinese sites to the ‘in danger’ list was ever publicly mentioned, it was less so when denials followed rapidly, and China not only escaped public censure but was awarded two further sites, bringing its then total to 35. It now has 50, overtaking Spain, with a further 46 in waiting. Only Italy has slightly more, but likely not for long.

But movement to the ‘in danger’ list is not anyway intended as a rebuke, says Jing, although he admits that some Asian cultures might tend to see it that way.

‘This convention is based on the assumption that the local legal framework protects the site. The endangered list is for conservation: it’s not a shame listing, it’s not a black level. It’s a way of promoting conservation, gaining funding and expertise, and getting support from member countries.’

The UK’s Craddock also rejects the idea of shame. ‘In the UK there’s a proposal to build more skyscrapers close to the Tower of London. There was a controversy [at a 2006 meeting] in the Baltics because no [investigative] mission had taken place. But we said “Let’s go through normal procedures.” We would expect the report to be as neutral and professional as possible, and we would take it seriously.’

He admits that UNESCO involvement, ‘can be seen as interference in national life, but can also be seen as joining in something whose objective is to maintain the highest possible standards.’

UNESCO insiders who decline to be named hint that China is willing to throw its weight about in other UN forums in order to avoid being shamed, and that recent moves by World Heritage officials to slow down the growth of the list by reducing the number of new additions from any one country to only one a year were thwarted by China.

Instead, China reliably adds one cultural and one natural site to the lists each year, and despite dissatisfaction with Chinese site management that appears in minutes as far back as 1998, when reports of ‘the demolition of historic buildings and new construction activities’ in Lhasa were first noted, the Committee seems powerless to prevent itself being hijacked for tourism promotion purposes.

Every Chinese site is compromised, and the co-operative spirit on which the system depends, along with a functioning legal framework to protect listed sites, is clearly missing.

Nevertheless Craddock believes that behind-the-scenes pressure does actually work. ‘The meetings are a lot more argumentative than the minutes ever let you know. There are quite a lot of political rows, and countries do feel severely affected. It’s better than having nothing at all. Even countries that don’t worry about internal criticism feel quite a lot of pressure. They don’t like to be named or shamed.’

Although all UNESCO sites in China probably deserve moving to the ‘in danger’ list simply by virtue of their location, the biggest candidate of all must be the Great Wall. No other monument is quite as grand yet as heavily compromised, and possibly none is as bound up with a people’s self-image as the Wall’s. Few nations would be as sensitive to the loss of face as China, and even threatening to delist the Wall and publicise that would probably do some good.

The state-controlled Chinese media publishes at least one Great Wall mea culpa story annually, sometimes suggesting that as much as one third of the Wall has been damaged in the past few years due to natural deterioration and human encroachment, referring not to hikers but to villagers taking away stone and brick for incorporation in their own building projects. There’s always a call for more regulation.

But regulations for the Wall’s protection are like the Wall itself, more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Chairlifts run right up it in several locations past speakers playing stirring music. All-night raves with multiple live bands have been held on at least one site — certainly a novel conservation technique. Tourist accommodation and other building has been allowed to lap the popular Bā Dá Lǐng site. A promotional golf event was allowed to tee off from the top of the Jūyōng Guān site.

Although since inscription some of the Wall may have been carried away for in peasant housing, other sections have materialised from nowhere. During 1993–7 more than four kilometres, including 28 towers and 30 other temples, governmental, and military structures were rebuilt from the ground up, at a cost of ¥100 million (then $19 million).

At Shānhǎiguān, where the Míng-era brick and stone wall meets the sea, the final few metres have been rebuilt in a style completely inconsistent with the original. One section of rammed earth wall in Shāndōng Province has been completely destroyed to build a Míng-style brick and stone version, more attractive to tourists, on the same route. There have been reports of fighting between staff at neighbouring Jin Shān Lǐng and Sīmǎtái sites over the division of income from increasing numbers of visitors who walk from one to the other along the Wall. Meanwhile, a self-assessment report by officials at Jiāyù Guān in 2002 beggared belief by claiming that tourism numbers hadn’t risen since 1987.

Admittedly, applying modern conservation standards to several thousand kilometres of historical monument would be a challenge even for the most developed nation. But it helps if you at least try.

Among Chinese members of the World Heritage list is the watchtowers of Kāipíng, in southern Guǎngdōng Province, and it an application for this site that interested the Jiāngnán Daily enough to seen reporters down to New Zealand.

In 2003 the mayor-led team lobbying Běijīng to make the nomination had spoken soberly of crowd management and cautious progress in tourism development while simultaneously building a new road out to the largest cluster of towers so that tour buses could reach them.

‘Guǎngdōng is the only province without a World Heritage site,’ complained one representative. Not only was this not true, but it indicated the thought that in terms of fairness there should be an even distribution of listed sites to ensure an even distribution of tourism wealth, regardless of the real world’s random distribution of cultural significance.

At Kāipíng country roads are now becoming clogged with tour buses, and the narrow staircases inside the towers worn by the tread of millions of feet. Souvenir and snack stalls are multiplying around the entrances.

It’s the cultural equivalent of adulterated pet food and toothpaste.

For now we have a system in which China apparently cannot be prevented from adding more sites, but in each case the site suffers as a result. And once added, it cannot be removed, because China will not cooperate in that process either.

So what’s the answer?

‘I’m still looking for answers myself,’ admits Feng Jing ruefully.

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