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Erroneous Public Conception on the World Heritage

While the devastating Cultural Revolution was  unfolding in China, the international community had reached a very different consensus: the world’s cultural and natural heritage was suffering damage from human activities and this damage was putting the world heritage on the verge of severe degradation. The international community’s belief was that examples of the cultural and natural heritage of the world should be protected as part of mankind’s heritage. Therefore it was decided that the international society needed to work more closely together to protect this heritage from any possible damage.
The 17th conference of UNESCO passed the “Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” in Paris on November 16, 1972. This convention urges each signatory to do all it can to protect its cultural and natural heritage, using as much resources of its own as possible, with the international society also shouldering responsibility for this work.
In order to reach the goal set forth in the convention, UNESCO founded the World Heritage Committee, whose main responsibility is to compile, update and publish the World Heritage List, covering the “most valuable and representative heritage”. This heritage is the key protection objective of the signatory states and the international society and any heritage that has been listed in the World Heritage List is regarded as world heritage. According to the convention, a World Heritage Site should fulfill the following criteria: it is unique, the site is severely endangered, the home country takes full ownership of site protection, and international community shoulders responsibility at the same time.
On November 22, 1985, the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress ratified this convention, and China formally became a signatory state. But twenty years after the convention was ratified in China, public understanding of China’s World Heritage Sites is at odds with the spirit of the convention. The widespread perception does recognize the historical significance of these heritage sites, but more as evidence proving the historical and cultural standing of China. Instead of considering these heritage sites as seriously endangered, the concern is that they have not been fully developed and utilized. It does consider the protection of these heritage sites necessary, but is not willing to take such responsibility, as “those who invest will benefit”, so “those who develop should protect”. Another belief is also that the international community should be responsible for the protection of these heritage sites, but only as a way of winning the application for new sites to be granted World Heritage status, and for gaining funding support. In fact, the World Heritage Sites in China ares now becoming a synonym as a world-class travel attraction.
This kind of erroneous conception has arisen for three reasons:
1. Many top officials regard the sites as inheritance from our ancestors, and that they should serve economic development rather than being concerned only with protection.
2. Local officials’ job performance is evaluated principally based on economic development criteria, and not by the protection of the cultural or natural heritage.
3. Corruption in the field of public resources management, which has not been adequately addressed. 
The convention has been implemented for twenty years, and the World Heritage Application process has been undertaken with great success. At this time, there are over 31 Chinese heritage sites on the World Heritage List. But given the widespread misunderstanding, the protection afforded to these 31 heritage sites is dubious, and some are already in desperate condition. The convention has emphasized that each state should spare no effort to protect their heritage sites, and the international community should take responsibility. If the Chinese government would like to keep its commitment to the convention, then it should educate its high officials, make this as an essential part of their administrative performance evaluation, and take effective action in stopping the corruption. The international community should take the responsibility of heritage protection, and should be more proactive. The eleventh clause in the convention regarding the List of World Heritage in Danger should be a warning to those countries with poor performance in heritage site protection. Some of China’s world heritage, including the Great Wall, have been altered almost beyond recognition, and are more endangered than most heritage sites listed in the List of World Heritage in Danger, but does not appear on that list? Should not UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee be more proactive?
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