More must be done on heritage preservation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 March, 2009, 12:00am

Many of the nation's key heritage sites are either being destroyed or commercialised. The process is threatening to become irreversible. For far too long, China has been bent on economic progress, with everything else taking a back seat.

Now, people are waking up to the costs. The latest clash came when Buddhist monks took matters into their own hands to protect their home at the Famen Temple in Shaanxi.

The temple is one of the world's holiest Buddhist shrines, dating back two millennia. It has, for many years, been a tourist magnet. To milk the visitors and develop the site into a major tourist attraction, a company has been put in charge by local officials. One bright idea it has come up with is to surround the temple with an ugly brick wall and charge every pilgrim or visitor a fee.

Disgusted by the blatant commercial exploitation and the blocked access, monks took down most of the wall with their bare hands, helped by many local residents. The monks have argued the site is a holy place which is being demeaned by efforts to commercialise it. They have a point. The company has now apologised for causing them inconvenience. The wall is likely to go back up, though better access will be provided for monks who live there.

The monks have reluctantly accepted the arrangement because it is sanctioned by local officials, leaving them with little choice. It is good that both sides have reached an amiable agreement, but the deal leaves a lot to be desired. China must do a better job to protect its heritage sites from being destroyed for development or debased by exploitation. Beijing's frequent worthy directives are too often ignored by local officials.

Even some of the top places among the 33 on the World Heritage List are being threatened, so one can only surmise the fate of lesser but still worthy heritage sites.

The nation is wealthy enough to preserve and showcase its heritage. Not only is this a matter of pride, but a profound responsibility as heir to a great civilisation.