MANY countries aspire to a place in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites, as it is a universal testament to their unique history and natural beauty. Shanghai Daily provides this opinion
At the 37th World Heritage Conference held recently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tianshan Mountain in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the terraced fields of Yunnan Province in southern China were admitted to the pantheon of natural world heritage, bringing the total of such patrimonies to 45 in China.
This news attests to the enthralling richness of Chinese topography, and should be cause for celebration. But it is also a mixed blessing.
If history is any guide, then one cannot but worry about the fate of the newly honored heritage sites.
In China, pursuit of world heritage status, whether cultural or natural, is not just about national pride. It is also an economic opportunity for localities that own heritage sites. Successful applications garner handsome payoffs in the form of tourist money, government funds and visibility. As such, the world heritage mania has gripped many local governments, with some zealously shelling out money on publicity and sprucing up their candidates.
Take Xinning in Hunan Province. The poverty-stricken county has an annual fiscal revenue of around 200 million yuan (US$32.5 million), yet it gambled 450 million yuan in 2008 on its world heritage bid for Danxia, a national reserve and geological park in Xinning’s jurisdiction.
Ticket out of poverty
A consequence of this desperation is that some relics and scenic spots, once designated as heritage sites, are not sufficiently protected according to UNESCO’s stipulation.
The more unpalatable reality is that most are being ruthlessly exploited under the official slogan of “preserving heritage and perpetuating civilization.”
For some, the world heritage title means a ticket out of poverty and thus it is worth putting in whatever they can come by, money – even if it’s borrowed – strenuous efforts, mass support, and even faked relics.
As the motivation is tainted by pecuniary obsession, such applications put a disproportionate emphasis on recouping costs and generating returns, while protection is reduced to an afterthought.
Tourism booms naturally follow, featuring heavy advertising of the particular UNESCO heritage sites. Admission is so steeply priced that a travel agency manager is quoted as saying in Monday’s Wenhui Daily that the money paid for a ticket to Jiuzhaigou Valley (a tourist attraction and world heritage site in Sichuan Province) can cover admission to Yellow Stone National Park in America, the Taj Mahal in India and Mount Fuji in Japan – and then there’s still money left over.
Pride and glamour aside, official quest for world heritage is essentially part of an entire package of commercialization that boosts careers.
Although many officials like to bandy about the cultural significance of the application, their action betrays their true intentions. Culture and civilization for them is above all an engine of GDP, not something they cannot defile.
A host of tourist and property projects conceived in the name of culture have sprung up, some barely cloaked in their parody of true culture.
Xi’an City in Shaanxi Province recently stirred considerable controversy with its plan to rebuild Epang Palace from a heap of debris.
Epang, built in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), is featured prominently in literature. Legend has it that the imposing imperial palace was burned to rubble by rebel leader Xiang Yu.
According to Xi’an’s plan, authorities will teem up with Shouchuang, a Beijing-based infrastructure company, to invest an aggregated 38 billion yuan in the rebuilding job.
The city intends to construct an Epang Heritage Park on a parcel of 2.3 square kilometers, to be followed by a 12.5-square-kilometer “cultural tourism industry base.”