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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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It Only Takes a Village: An Interview with He Shuzhong

In the last decade, Beijing has become the world’s poster boy for ‘ruthless’ urban renewal. Helped by international press coverage on heavy-duty prestige projects by celebrity architects and the appropriation by Chinese artists of symbols like chai 拆, the Chinese character meaning demolition, this impression has persisted. However, within Beijing, and also throughout China, attitudes have changed rapidly. Organizations like the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP; Beijing Wenhua Yichan Baohu Zhongxin) have shown that through engagement at a grass-roots level, local communities can be empowered to protect their own heritage.

When Orientations first spoke to He Shuzhong some six years ago, he presided over a group of dedicated volunteers who called themselves Cultural Heritage Watch, and had in 2000 set up what was then China’s only website dedicated to heritage protection (Meg Maggio, ‘Beijing’s CHW Institute of Cultural Heritage and Law’, in Orientations, September 2002, p.89). Recently, we caught up with He to discuss the changes that have taken place in the field.

Orientations: Mr. He, at the time of the 2002 interview, the general understanding was that conserving cultural heritage was apparently not actively practiced by many Chinese cultural institutions and the concept was largely alien to the Chinese public. Would this be an accurate observation?

He Shuzhong: Actually, with a cultural heritage that is both abundant and precious, many educated Chinese understand the importance of conservation. Nevertheless, due to various factors, our cultural heritage has been the victim of long-term destruction and continues to be under threat. While most people will complain about this, they do not believe that the process is reversible, much less even think that they can take any positive action to improve the situation. There are also many who believe that heritage protection is the sole responsibility of the state and not of the individual. In fact, it is indifference that has exacerbated the damage to China’s cultural heritage.

O: How did you come to be interested in this area and how were you able to stimulate the interest of your peers?

HSZ: I was extremely fortunate to have parents who impressed upon me the significance of our cultural heritage and the nobleness of those who pursued its preservation. I was fortunate to have friends from all over the world who gave me information and encouragement, enabling me to learn more about the field. The liberalization that was rapidly taking place in both Chinese government and society presented me with the opportunity to realize my ideals. Since I had enough food and clothing, I was able to devote all my energies to the cause of cultural heritage protection. By focusing on areas and goals that were realistic, and through perseverance, I succeeded in finding solutions to some problems. As more and more of my friends came to learn about heritage protection, many were inspired to participate and our group just kept growing; and other organizations also offered support and assistance. I would say mutual trust, free exchange and encouragement were motivating factors.

O: Since then, your group has seen many changes and has been transformed into the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a thriving NGO. Can you describe how this happened?

HSZ: It was a lengthy struggle – it took five years before we were officially registered as an NGO with the Beijing Bureau of Civil Affairs. As cultural heritage protection was a worthy cause, I knew early on that it was necessary to establish a legal platform for it. From the outset, I understood that organization and reason had to be the starting points if people in modern society were to take part in civil activism.

I studied the structures of organizations like Human Rights Watch with the hope to establish Cultural Heritage Watch as an NGO. It was to be run according to internationally accepted norms; it was to have worldwide recognition; it had to be effective and influential; it had to have universal respect and support like a ‘real’ NGO.

However, it proved too difficult to structure an NGO along these lines in the PRC. Apart from requirements like funding and setting up a proper office, there were also other stipulations which we did not anticipate. In actual fact, the authorities had no desire to see a proper NGO set up in China. After overcoming innumerable obstacles, we managed to meet all the conditions for operation imposed by the authorities. I believe an important factor in moving the officials to grant us a permit was our dedication. When all of Beijing was cloistered in their homes and hidden behind face masks during the SARS epidemic of 2003, we continued to lobby the authorities for our cause. But we were not allowed to call the NGO Cultural Heritage Watch because this type of name was not permitted under Chinese law.

Looking back, I believe that the decision to organize the group as an NGO was a correct one. Without the government permit or the organizational infrastructure, we would not have achieved the results we have or received the support we did.

CHP team

O: Can you describe the membership of the CHP?

HSZ: There are several levels of membership. At present there is a management committee that is responsible for making key decisions. It comprises myself, Jim Stent, Anne Whetham and Luo Yuan. Jim and Anne are long-time foreign residents in China; they are simply outstanding – without their advice and help, the CHP would not be where it is today. Luo Yuan is a native Beijinger with an intimate knowledge of the city. While each of us has our own area of specialization, there is nevertheless an easy exchange of ideas. We are assisted by a team of five full-time workers led by our managing director Matthew Hu Xinyu. These fine young people are as idealistic as they are professional, and can be considered movers within China’s charities.

There are several hundred volunteers from all walks of life – students, workers and farmers as well as academics, professionals, members of the media and artists. Over the years, their composition has seen some changes: the number of Chinese volunteers has increased and senior management from multinationals with operations in China now count among our members. They have greatly expanded our spheres of influence.

O: The core beliefs of your organization place emphasis on the moral obligation of the individual to protect his or her heritage and the empowerment of communities through public awareness. In a society that historically has not privileged the rights of individuals and the values of informed awareness, how can activism based on these principles be encouraged?

HSZ: Our activities are founded on three major premises. Firstly, Chinese society is becoming more open and the awareness of human rights is ever-increasing. The influence of the mass media is growing, and the use of the internet is common. Secondly, there are strict legal provisions for the enforcement of cultural heritage protection – the Central Government clearly supports it, and Communist Party documents emphasize its importance. Thirdly, the Chinese people wholeheartedly support heritage protection and respect culture and tradition.

The CHP needs to set an example by establishing a firm platform, providing leadership, and organizing and coordinating public participation in cultural heritage protection. We stress methodology. We are tireless in searching for practical solutions, investigating cases of destruction of cultural property, using the law to maximum effect and fully utilizing the power of the media. Of course, the CHP will defend its own core beliefs and principles.

O: The areas that come under the umbrella of cultural heritage protection are very wide – they range from imperial and religious architecture and historical monuments to natural phenomena of cultural and historical significance and material artifacts. With such an extensive jurisdiction, there are evidently gaps in enforcement and protection by government agencies. How can a civil organization like the CHP work with authorities to fill these gaps?

HSZ: The work of cultural heritage protection has already begun in China. This can be seen in the state’s support for projects like the restoration and repair of ancient monuments, archaeological excavations, and the establishment and construction of new museums. The government has sufficient funds and manpower in these areas.

However, the ambit of cultural heritage protection is wide, and issue that demand attention are many. As an NGO, the CHP pays attention to the area it feels are the most important and pressing – encouraging volunteerism, promoting public awareness, and lobbying and negotiating with the authorities to stop heritage destruction. While such activities are not necessarily those that the government will privilege, they are suitable for public participation and have promotional value.

O: Can you tell us about one particularly memorable project, the hurdles the organization faced and how success was achieved?

HSZ: There is one incident that typifies the nature of the CHP’s work. The story is related in full detail on our website. When proposals for a project in Beijing were unveiled at an exhibition last summer, we discovered that the development had the potential to destroy cultural heritage. Jointly sponsored by an investment company and the Xicheng District Housing and Land Management Centre, the ‘New Xisi Bei Project International Exhibition’ introduced a regeneration strategy for an area that the Beijing Municipal Government has designated as one of the capital’s 25 conservation districts. Some of our volunteers visited the exhibition and learned that even though the buildings were to be designed by some of the world’s leading architects, the concepts presented did not appear to be in keeping with Beijing’s Conservative Plan.

After extensive research, we organized an open forum in late August and invited scholars, journalists, residents and officials to attend. We presented an analysis of the proposals in the exhibition within the context of the Conservation Plan and the existing laws on cultural heritage protection. We ensured that our views and our studies were openly disseminated, and this exerted pressure on both the developers and the authorities. We believe that issues concerning such projects should be raised during the nascent stages of planning, otherwise, once construction has begun, the damage is irreversible. This type of development project, if brought to fruition, has the potential to permanently destroy Beijing’s Old City. Through our work the public has become informed, the authorities have been put under pressure and the developers have been taught a valuable lesson.

Even though we cannot ensure complete success in our advocacy, as far as we can see, our agitation has brought some results. The municipal government has already requested that the developers make alterations that conform to the Conservation Plan and the heritage protection regulations. The architects have even voluntarily sought our assistance in providing information on the Old City and we now have even more volunteers.

O: The CHP places a lot of emphasis on the effectiveness of the media in promoting cultural heritage conservation. Has the focus on Beijing for the 2008 Olympics helped to further your cause? How can this momentum be sustained once this historic event is over?

HSZ: The power of the people and the media are vital to the work of the CHP. The public needs to be educated and the media needs to be cultivated – this is a long-term strategy and is not limited to a single event like the Olympics. In a rapidly evolving city like Beijing, the games will be just one of many significant landmarks in its development. Nevertheless, because both the public and the media pay particular attention to information related to the Olympics, we need to adopt a sensitive approach.

The CHP intends to intensify its partnership with the press. We intend to organize more media-friendly programmes, and to provide journalists with access to available information. Hopefully this will stimulate more critical writing and investigative reporting on issues of cultural heritage protection.

O: Are there plans to extend your conservation activities beyond Beijing?

HSZ: Definitely. Although we are an organization registered in Beijing, we are permitted by law to carry out activities elsewhere. Due to limitations in funding and human resources, our main activities are currently confined to Beijing. With sufficient resources, however, we can take our operations nationwide. Our existing programmes are prototypes that can be adapted for use in other parts of China. For example, the ‘Friends of Old Beijing’ network can be set up in other cities and the Dai Cultural Revitalization Project can be a paradigm for the study of rural or minority nationality communities. Our media partnership strategies can be applied all over China.

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Revitalizing culture – Dai villagers dancing at a festival

O: China has lately been emphasizing the preservation of its intangible heritage. In 2004, the CHP launched the Dai Cultural Revitalization in Yunnan province – can you tell us more about this? Why were this area and minority chosen and does the CHP have plans to increase its focus in this area?

HSZ: Cultural heritage protection and intangible heritage are inextricably linked. In an urban environment, material cultural heritage is more evident. However, in rural districts or minority nationality communities, intangible practices and traditions are more conspicuous. The reason why Dai culture was selected is a simple one: the Thai charity, The James H. W. Thompson Foundation, and the Australian government, wanted to fund a project in this particular community.

The Dai project has been immensely successful. The elders in the village of Meng ma in southwest Yunnan began recording all the aspects of Dai life and culture in Dai script. This has resulted in a bilingual [Chinese-English] publication Chronicles of Mengma [Mengma dang’an], which has been issued by Wenwu Chubanshe. Mainland scholars and officials expressed interest in the project, most notably, the then Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng [now a Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference]. He donated his contributor’s fee to a village elder and began corresponding with him. Consequently, local county and municipal officials have come to respect the Dai culture and see the value in its preservation. Nevertheless, the process of developing awareness is a continuous one that requires constant supervision and pressure. The participants in the project have become celebrities and heroes in their efforts to protect their native heritage. This has led to an increase in young people who are now interested in their cultural traditions.

Practically speaking, as long as there is financial support, similar endeavours can be organized. People elsewhere have also been inspired by the project and have come to study it, in the hope of carrying out similar work in their home districts. It has also received the endorsement of UNESCO, and we have made requests to participate in the related programmes they organize.

O: What are your long-term goals – what does the CHP hope to achieve in the next decade?

HSZ: As society in China becomes more advanced, the future of cultural heritage protection is a bright one. For the CHP, it needs to sustain its well-organized management structure, and maintain openness and transparency. It has to become an NGO with international standards the equivalent to those of organizations of similar stature. At the same time, we need to strengthen our ability to raise funds – only with sufficient finances can the CHP become an entity that has a global voice in the issues of cultural heritage protection.

First published in the June 2008 issue (pp.60-62) of Orientations, the Hong Kong-based Asian art magazine.

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