Cultural heritage at risk as cash trumps conservation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 September, 2010, 12:00am

Chinese people like to trumpet the country's 5,000-year history. But when it comes to preserving the magnificent cultural heritage of their ancestors, they're not doing a very good job.

The tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution saw countless historical relics wrecked in a deliberate attempt to destroy 'old culture'. Those that survived the excesses of Maoism are now under attack from a very different quarter - the country's fast-growing real estate sector.

In the Jiangsu city of Zhenjiang, 13 ancient underground grain stores from the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368) have been badly damaged by a municipal-government-owned developer building a luxury residential and commercial complex. The grain stores were recognised by the central government as one of last year's top-10 archaeological discoveries. An expert from the Nanjing Museum says that even though the provincial and national cultural-heritage authorities have ordered a halt to construction, excavators and bulldozers are still working at the site, alongside archaeologists busily digging out more ancient treasures.

Two years ago, in Anhui's poverty-stricken Sixian county, a 900-year-old temple was dismantled after the land it occupied was sold to a developer planning to put up luxury flats. The developer paid top dollar for the site, and the flats have sold well because the site is in a prime location. The local heritage department opposed the project but it went ahead thanks to the support of more powerful departments.

In Ezhou, Hubei, dozens of senior citizens have joined hands over the past few months to keep the wrecking ball away from an 1,800-year-old temple. After reading a report that the temple was to be moved to make way for a property development, they have petitioned the government, stood guard during the day and even hired a migrant worker to sound the alarm if any attempt is made to demolish the temple at night.

Xinhua says at least 30,000 cultural-heritage relics registered with the authorities have disappeared in the past 25 years.

He Yunao, an archaeology professor at Nanjing University, says the problem is that society attaches more importance to money nowadays, sneering at spiritual and long-term interests.

'People will remove any obstacles that could stall sizzling economic growth,' he said. 'The majority of the population is indifferent to the protection of cultural heritage, saying it's none of their business.'

The Law on Protection of Cultural Relics, which came into force in 2002, has also proved ineffective in protecting relics from devastation.

Professor He said many developers colluded with local governments and enforcement of the law was weak. The law caps fines for illegal construction projects inside heritage areas or the illegal demolition of relics at half a million yuan (HK$570,000), an insignificant amount for cash-rich real estate companies.

Unfortunately, things do not seem to get much better when a site manages to gain international recognition.

Local governments across the mainland are scrambling to get natural and cultural heritage spots into the queue of applications for world-heritage listing with Unesco, the UN body that promotes culture. China has more than 100 heritage sites in the pipeline, but can only submit one application for the natural heritage category and another for the cultural category every year. Forty mainland heritage sites have won Unesco recognition so far, ranking third globally behind Italy's 45 and Spain's 42.

The reason local authorities don't mind spending billions of yuan in pursuit of Unesco listing can be found in the ancient city of Pingyao, in Shanxi . Since it was added to the world-heritage list in 1997, tourism revenue has increased roughly sixfold.

However, some experts are alarmed by the process, saying that many heritage areas suffer after receiving Unesco recognition. Local authorities, thinking their work is done, let their guard down on protection as hordes of visitors and excessive development chip away at the cultural values the listing was meant to protect.

One case in point can be found near the renowned Leshan giant Buddha, the world's biggest stone-carved Buddha, which dates back 1,300 years and received Unesco recognition in 1996. A Sichuan company is erecting a full-scale replica near the Leshan Buddha of a Buddha statue destroyed by the Taliban in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, nine years ago. Experts worry that it will seriously damage the Leshan Buddha's cultural value.

In the face of such challenges, the officials meant to protect cultural heritage are often helpless.

Professor He says that compared with the powerful construction and lands departments, and others focused on economic growth, the cultural heritage department's voice is muted and too weak to stop the ravaging of cultural relics.

The way things are going, it's hard to say how many mainland cultural relics will survive to pass on to future generations.