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Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is a small grassroots, legally-registered NGO working to protect cultural heritage across China.

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The People are the Rightful Owners of Cultural Heritage

“The people are the rightful owners of cultural heritage.” This is one view that the government is currently emphasizing. Recently during a speech at the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Director-General of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), Mr. Shan Jixiang, clearly stated that: “The people are the rightful owners of cultural heritage. Their active participation and support are the material strength on which the existence and development of cultural heritage depends. They are the hope and the future.” Through reports from Xinhua News Agency and other media outlets, his words are having a strong impact.

While reporting the content of his speech, Xinhua also fiercely criticized the wrong methods used by officials in many districts. Xinhua journalist, Yu Wenjing believes, “Once, the officials worked for the people by wiping the original inhabitants out and turning Jiuzhaigou (literally: 9 Village Valley) into an “pure” No-zhaigou (literally: No Village Valley). When the people no longer hang signs saying: “Protect the Homeland With Our Lives”, only then will our world heritage truly belong to all the people.”

When the government stresses the people’s role as rightful owners of cultural heritage, the most recent examples it raises include the local residents of Sichuan’s Li County Taoping Qiang Minority Village joining the rescue and preservation effort after the earthquake, as well as the local residents of Xinjiang’s Turpan District participating in the rescue and preservation of the karez wells.  The Qiang Minority’s village watchtowers and the karez wells are both among China’s most important cultural heritage sites.  These rescue and preservation projects are implemented by local residents, primarily those that have had training and have mastered traditional skills.  This work achieves an unbelievable number of effects: local people use their own two hands to restore their home and are thus able to ensure the quality of the work; using work as a form of relief, income is increased, and the people are able to improve their lives; organizing training in traditional skills, they transmit intangible cultural heritage and ensure the authenticity of these heritage sites after restoration.

From these examples we can undoubtedly see that the government’s prevailing innovative practice can sufficiently provoke deep consideration from government officials from all over the country.  We believe that cultural heritage belongs to the local people of a place, and likewise they should value and be aware of the importance of cultural heritage protection.  Our goal is to help community residents protect their culture heritage.  Accordingly, we greatly admire the protection program methods of the Taoping Qiang Watchtower, and the karez wells of Turpan, which demonstrate the idea that “The people are the rightful owners of cultural heritage” which has been put forth by the government.  At the same time, we also believe the government must continue to encourage this idea. This requires recognizing that cultural heritage protection is one of a citizen’s most basic cultural rights, and making sure the legal system allows local people exercise their right to protect their cultural heritage. In this regard, China has only “taken the first step of the Long March”!

In the past, Chinese practice in cultural heritage conservation has erred in depriving communities of control of their local heritage. CHP is pleased to see that government policy is not rectifying this problem. Of course, local communities, in exercising their control, must adhere to national heritage conservation laws, and should endeavor to follow international best practice. It should be the responsibility of the government to make knowledge of relevant laws and best practices known to local communities, so that they can apply it in carrying out their local heritage protection work. And situations will no doubt arise when, either out of lack of knowledge and experience, or led astray by commercial temptations, or improperly influenced by local vested interests, a community will, perhaps with the best of intentions, embark on heritage projects that will be poorly conceived or even illegal. In such cases it will be the responsibility of the government to counsel, advise, and restrain.

With regard to the legal aspects of protecting local residents’ right to protect cultural relics, local residents must have the right to establish an independent institution with legal status, and to then undertake cultural protection work through that organization in accordance with the law. Currently, three kinds of “non-governmental organizations (NGOs)” that are legally recognized: privately-run non-enterprise work units, foundations, and public organizations.

As a ”privately-run non-enterprise organization” in the area of cultural heritage protection, CHP went through the arduous process of becoming legally licensed in 2003. The legal requirement of registration is that, as a non-enterprise organization, CHP must be sponsored and supervised by a government unit, which is then responsible for CHP’s work. IN CHP’s case, the responsible organization is the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau, a unit of the Beijing city government. Like other “non-enterprise organizations”, CHP must ensure that its responsible government unit is satisfied with CHP’s work, otherwise CHP may be in danger of not having its annual license renewal application supported by the responsible organization, resulting in de-registration.

One of the responsibilities of a non-governmental organization is to monitor and criticize the government’s performance. But if at the same time, an NGO must satisfy its responsible government unit, then there is an inherent contradiction, and the NGO is unlikely to be confident that it can monitor government work with full independence and objectivity, lest it lose the backing of that responsible government unit. We hope that the government will re-examine the regulations governing NGOs, particularly the regulations requiring a responsible government unit to sponsor NGOs. Once this regulation is dropped, then NGOs will be able to properly fulfill their intended functions in the development of civil society in China.

CHP would like to thank our translator volunteers, Kristen Robinson, R. Tyler Cotton, John Loiacono and Tiffany Gray for their outstanding translation of this article. It is their help that enables CHP to update the audience around the world with cultural heritage protection news in China.

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