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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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Can NGOs Change the Status of Cultural Heritage Protection in China? The Case of CHP as an Example

(by Wang Yunxia & He Shuzhong, Realising Cultural Heritage Law,

A collection of essays edited by Lyndel V. Prott, Institute of Art and Law, 2013)

I.  Introduction

In developed countries, NGOs are a mature and stable part of society; but in China, understanding of NGOs is rather limited and still controversial.  Some officials believe that NGOs only oppose governments; if their purpose is not to oppose the government, then why establish an “NGO”?  Some business people believe that NGOs are only a new kind of company; if their purpose is not to make money, why should someone start such an organization?  A large portion of the public maintains that, because China has too much fraud, NGOs are really just a new way of conning people.   These views are all really not that strange.  China is still a socialist country led by the Communist party.  The government is used to controlling everything.  China is extremely proud that its GDP is already the world’s second largest.  The media has widely praised ideal of a prosperous lifestyle; to live lavishly and make money is the most important aspect of life.  Traditional ethics and virtues have already been destroyed but a new social order has not yet formed.  Honesty is lacking everywhere.  In this type of social environment, NGOs are indeed too strange.

However, China had begun reform and opening up thirty years ago, its inevitable result is that many organizations appear similar to NGOs, and fall under some of the similar laws and regulations.  In order for China to maintain its unique socialist system, and to demonstrate its reform and opening up, China hopes to use the concept of “social organizations” to replace the concept of “civil society” and NGO that exists in most developed countries. The law recognizes three types of organizations simultaneously: social groups, foundations, and “private non-enterprise units.” Some points should be pointed out that: 1. According to the law, establishing social organization require a minimum financial protection, a fixed working space, a full staff, and local government think the establishing is necessary; 2.  Social organizations undertake “important projects,” In order to observe the wishes of the government, they must first seek government permission, otherwise the government might think they are undertaking illegal activities. 3. A majority of social organizations receive financial support from the government, and employees are hired by the government, work plans are set by the government; so some Western experts have called these “Governmental-NGOs” 4. Beside such governmental NGOs, many are involved with poverty alleviation, technical training, and artistic and cultural performances.  Few are involved in cultural heritage protection.  And of the G-NGOs involved in this field, most fall under the category of “private museums”. Such museums are often in the business of illicit trafficking of antiques. In our discussion of the role of NGO in cultural heritage protection, we should clearly state the general situation of NGOs in China: the law permits them to exist, but the social environment is sick, funds are seriously lacking, government regulation is too severe, and they can be shut down at any time due to “illegal activities”.

After many years of investigation of the government-published list of social organizations, we realized the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is one of the few organizations involved in cultural heritage protection that is not a private museum. There are some university-affiliated research organizations and small volunteer-organizations loosely involved in cultural heritage protection. However, because these organizations are not really civil society NGO, we can only look at CHP as an example of how NGOs may be able to change heritage protection in China.

So, what obvious problems does heritage protection face in China?  What requires hard work to change?

In addition to the above-mentioned obstacle of tight government control, there is also the problem of government officials being too obsessed with the goal of increasing GDP; they pay little concern to traditional ethics and values.  There are also a few more background points worth mentioning: 1. After twenty years, even today after a few decades, the rapid pace of China’s urbanization has shocked the world; 2, Ethnic minorities are increasingly dissatisfied with the distribution of resources and cultural rights under the rule of Han Chinese; 3, Because cultural heritage matters basically fall under the departments responsible for maintaining socialism, cultural heritage preservation often is understood to be merely important for defending the ideology of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. China has already entered into international treaties and organizations aimed at protecting cultural heritage, many laws under the international standers have already been passed, and every year there are huge fund initiating protection projects in China. Many museums have planned traveling exhibitions and the number of sites listed as World Cultural Heritage Site has increased, but still the problem is obviously serious. For examples: 1. The most famous ancient sites have received protection and attention very well while a majority of lesser-known sites have been damaged and disappeared. The residents have little understanding of local cultural heritage and unique characteristics of different localities are quickly disappearing, 2. The government is calling on people to assist in the preservation of cultural heritage but they don’t have the fundamental protection or legal rights to do so, and the cultural rights of citizens haven’t been strengthened, only being able to act in the role of the government’s vassal, 3.  While the government has started projects specifically to highlight ethnic minority culture, the local residents of such areas have little say in choosing such projects, work opportunities and other rights are few, and much local culture has been forgotten.  Local people lack cultural heritage self-determination and rights of cultural heritage projection, their perceived significance and value is also low, such cultural heritage protection can not satisfy the progress of China society. Even if a nation’s GDP is the highest in the world and its population numerous, if the people’s lack of cultural conscience and cultural rights, increasing ethnic conflict, is not good news for the entire world, it could even threaten many people around the world. Archaeology or historical architecture renovation is of course significant work, but the first responsibility for NGOs is to advocate for cultural consciousness and cultural rights, to advance various ethnic groups cultural space and mutual understanding between cultures.  This work is equally or more important and meaningful than archeology and architectural restoration.

Before got the licence, CHP was called Cultural Heritage Watch, a small website for Chinese Cultural Heritage Protection.  The goal was to set up a website modeled on the work of “Human Rights Watch”.  After many years of applying, and also received the help of several high officials; CHP was founded in 2003 as a “Social Organization” Private Non-Profit Unit and received an official permit. Beijing at this time was affected by panic over the SARS outbreak, the officers were touched by everyday’s applying even under the SARS outbreak. The stated purpose of the mission in the licence document was for “the investigation of cultural heritage protection and the education and capacity building for preservation.” At the time of obtaining the official certificate, an official with the Beijing City government told Mr. He Shuzhong: “be very careful, do not hassle the government!”

CHP has to be careful to not harass the government, especially looking to the horizon so we could continually remain an independent NGO.  Therefore at many times and in many aspects CHP had to very strictly and carefully adhere to government rules and regulations.  In order to solve social problems that lie deep in China’s social fabric, CHP’s mission statement is “supporting communities to protect their cultural heritage.”  This mission statement would not alarm the government, because very high Communist Party leaders have already given speeches supporting such general goals and have stressed the importance of cultural heritage protection.  This mission is also able to satisfy the requirement of advancing the progress of Chinese society, because it emphasizes that cultural heritage is maintained by local communities.  Local communities have the right and responsibility to protect their own cultural heritage.  An overlapping goal is to help strengthen civil society.  All members of this society should be able to understand and respect their own culture and traditions.

II.  Case Study: Urban Heritage Protection

CHP’s primary focus is on large cities and historical districts within large cities.  The residents of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have mostly escaped desperate poverty and many have already achieved comfortable lifestyles.  Among a portion of residents, living conditions are already quite well off, and they have even received professional education.  However, because 60 years ago the founding of “New China” cut off a nascent and emerging modern political and democratic tradition, and 40 years ago the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” shattered a respect for culture and history that had just been resuscitated, and 30 years ago the “Reform and Opening Up” created a way of thinking that prioritized development and GDP over every other way of thinking, the majority of urban residents have already lost all respect for and appreciation for preservation cultural heritage traditions and methods. In this social reality, in order to mobilize and assist residents to protect historical and cultural districts, CHP must fully explore, utilize, and enlarge the existing conditions.  Although the majority of legislation has not been effective, people can still advocate for their opinions and share information and methods.  The spread of information technology and widespread adaptation of cell phones allows people to conveniently share and receive information.  Through tourism and media, many residents have already been able to understand that preservation of such areas in Europe and North America is peaceful and clean, buildings and courtyards have charm and dignity.  Historic areas of the city are frequently some of the most splendid and sought-after areas.  The demolish and the developing project in historic areas will leads to tensions and conflicts between and developers and government and residents.  But these conflicts can also be transformed into support for preserving such areas.   CHP has more than ten projects on preserving such areas that fit into the above-mentioned situation but they all have their own unique particulars.

The Drum and Bell Tower Preservation Case

The Drum and Bell Tower Neighborhood is one of the most completely preserved of Beijing Old City’s historical preservation areas.  The hutongs, courtyard homes, drum tower and bell tower, and the Beijing residents and their traditions form a symbiotic culture, that is representative of the cultural traditions of common Beijing residents.  Through the protecting and nurturing of the environment, the drum and bell tower area will become the most whimsical and valuable piece of old Beijing.  However, some officials believed that this area is very backward and is a burden impeding the development of a prosperous city.

In 2010 the local government in partnership with a real estate development company decided to implement the “Beijing Time Culture City” project here.  The project encompassed 12.5 hectares and had an investment backing of $600 million.  In addition, there would be a planned relocation of many residents, the destruction of surrounding hutongs, courtyard homes, and the construction of new high-end commercial and tourist sites.  The local government hoped that this area would become a hotspot for branches of global brand name stores and increase the tax revenue and GDP of the area.  The 700-year-old drum and bell towers would become the “Beijing Time Culture City” landmark building.  Developers are confident this project would bring a great return on investment, because wealthy Chinese love brand name watches and the Drum and Bell Tower area is famous.  CHP believed that the project would undoubtedly completely destroy the drum and bell neighborhood’s traditional culture, inflicting heavy damage on the old city.  Therefore CHP resolved to ask the government to suspend the project.  However the project had already been approved by the local government and included in government work plans, and had already been designed by a famous American design firm.

To override such a project, there must be ample and definitive reasons; the illegal nature of the project is a sufficient reason.  In order to protect the drum and bell tower’s historical value and environmental features, the surrounding area is declared a preservation zone.  Within this zone, all new buildings are prohibited. Outside of this preservation zone, there is an architecture control zone. In the architecture control zone, no buildings are permitted that would damage the style of the environment. “Beijing Time Culture City” project involved the entirety of this architecture control zone, as well as some part of this preservation zone. These clear reasons would not be enough to halt the progress of this project, because indeed illegal destruction of China’s cultural heritage is an everyday occurrence.  Moreover, this project would bring huge profit to many officials and businessmen.

CHP would at the same time, have to mount a stronger effort, to mobilize the media and the masses in criticizing the project and therefore assemble a force large enough to stop the project.  There is a lot of research that is able to explain the historical value of the drum and bell tower district, and also concrete and conclusive evidence that shows how the “Beijing Time Culture City” project will bring much harm to the residents and local business-owners of the area.

CHP effectively communicated this project to local residents and the public via the Internet and mobile phones.  Of course, this required meticulous design and careful planning.  Countless media interviews and public discussions followed.  In the spring of 2010, at least 100 Chinese and 30 foreign media outlets had reported on the issue.  And countless ordinary citizens have expressed their dissatisfaction with the project.  In CHP’s small office and in old hutongs, teahouses and coffeehouses, dozens of intense discussions were held on the causes and consequences of the project.

There are several points that emerged: 1. In the midst of this process, residents understanding of the history and culture of the drum and bell tower was deepened, and their awareness of their culture was obviously increased; 2. A number of famous singers and artists enthusiastically joined CHP’s activities, and this allowed more young people to pay attention to cultural heritage; 3. Low-level government officials are sensitive to the criticism of higher officials, and high-level government officials are sensitive to foreign media criticism; during this process there were many critical foreign media reports that made their way (translated into Chinese) to the table of higher officials; 4. Successful case studies of historical preservation districts in Europe and American received much attention from officials and the public alike and they began to think about Chinese preservation methods and development goals.  In March of 2010, in wake of the public mood, CHP decided to launch a special open seminar “Towards a Better Future for the Drum and Bell Tower District” in order to make one final push to stop the Beijing Time Cultural City Project.  Through the Internet and mobile phones, CHP knew that it would be difficult to calculate the number of people who would come to the venue.  The local police bureau also understood this situation.

A day before the scheduled session, CHP staff were summoned to the police station and told that the public gathering was forbidden. CHP was required to quickly inform the public that the event was cancelled and must prevent chaos from erupting in the community.  Of course CHP completely satisfied all the police’s requirements, because CHP’s goal is not to oppose the police.  A few hours before the seminar was originally scheduled, several police cars appeared in the area, a few police poked into the meeting place; CHP staff and volunteers were persuading people not to attend.  The air was tense.  However, many people were in a joyous mood.  According to an understanding of the method of Chinese government officials, the matter had reached the point where “Beijing Time Cultural City” project had to end.  As expected, after a few weeks, Beijing official media reported that the government had cancelled plans for the project.

III.  Case Study: Ethnic Minority Heritage Preservation

Another primary area of focus for CHP is ethnic minority groups’ cultural traditions.  According to the articles of the Constitution and laws, China is very concerned with ethnic minority issues, and concerned with their cultural traditions and protection.  However, many problems exist in this area.  Han chauvinism is in vogue, and many officials are not in the habit of distinguishing the concepts of China, Chinese, and Han.  Some leaders also obviously don’t wish to give prominence to ethnicity, and don’t want to emphasize the preservation of different ethnicities.  The “ethnicity problem” is often intentionally or unintentionally explained and understood as a “political problem”.

Such a dominant way of thinking, coupled with the fact that a majority of ethnic minorities are disadvantaged with regards to education, industry, access to information, use of natural resources has influenced many of them to dilute their own identity.  A part of ethnic minority groups manifest this with an attitude of passive resistance, and another group of them have rejected their ethnic identity or profited from the government’s efforts to display ethnic minority cultures for tourism.  In diluting their own identity, the special aspects of their culture have been lost.  Isolation and passive resistance will inevitably lead to social conflict, exacerbated by the Han Chauvinist way of thinking.  The corruption of government officials in minority areas, and the nation’s methods of plundering resources are making things worse.

CHP is concerned for minority cultures and their heritage, not only for the issue of heritage protection but also for maintaining peace in these areas.  There have been riots in Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, and other regions.  CHP is convinced that the ethnic minority problem is one of China’s most serious problems.  Of course, CHP is not a political organization; CHP is only a cultural heritage NGO.  But CHP still hopes that it can help the ethnic minority problem from the angle of cultural heritage protection.  To this end, CHP has developed several projects using a variety of methods.

Mengma Archive & Menglian Traditional Weaving Revival

The basis for all work is to enhance cultural awareness and self-esteem for ethnic minority groups.  Ethnic minority villagers, looking towards the prosperity of cities and the modern industry and scientific technology there, can easily believe their own unique culture to be backward and impoverished.  Sometimes there are even cultural scholars who come to do field work in these towns, and may even mention the names of towns and villagers.  But this research basically ignores the local people’s way of living and way of thinking.  These scholars are always outsiders.  Academic research results also usually benefit outsiders and not the villagers themselves.

CHP’s work in this area is completely different from that type of research work.  In the Mengma Archive project, A’er Archive project, and Congjiang Cultural Mapping Project, CHP’s project officers mobilized to help local residents, taking local residents to be the chief priority, and accordance with international conventions and local religious practices as the guide, used the local residents’ own language and characters to discuss, and to systematically record their own traditions.  Many of the most common villagers, using 2-3 years time, without any compensation or any government supervision, in the fields, homes, and in temples recalled and wrestled with the smallest details of their traditions.  Daughter or grandchild, jointly where appropriate put words and sentences on paper and record the dignity of their culture; such a scenario is extremely rare in socialist China.  When their work was published by China’s most famous publishing houses and received the appraisal of numerous scholars, especially when they see the publication of their own photos and that they own the copyright to these materials, they gained an unprecedented sense of cultural consciousness and self-esteem.

In the process of using this method to enhance ethnic minority cultural heritage self-esteem, there are three things CHP focused on: 1. Working hard to coordinate with local officials who may sympathize with such projects so that they don’t interfere in such projects; 2. To introduce knowledge of laws and requirements to such communities so that they may be able to better organize themselves and in the process better understand international conventions and concepts. 3. Advocate for equality between ethnic minority groups, and mutual respect to prevent the emergence of racism.  CHP strongly believes that these three things will be reflected after the project.

Through the work CHP had accumulated sufficient experience.  CHP tried to accomplish cultural heritage protection and increase ethnic minority income and creativity.  A few years ago when CHP was in the process of developing the Mengma Archive Project, CHP discovered the Mengma villages in Menglian County were home to a unique hand-weaving technique.  The ancient hand-weaving pieces in local museum is extremely beautiful; CHP realized there might be an opportunity to help the revitalization of local weaving skills.  Luckily, the Menglian Traditional Weaving Revival project began several years later of the Mengma archive project. CHP had several objectives in implementing this project: 1. Revitalize Menglian traditional weaving skills which would become the responsibility and requirement of the local people; outsiders would only be able to help them get going; 2.  In order for Menglian local people to revitalize their weaving craft, they will use an NGO approach to adopt a sustainable development model; 3. Traditional weaving craft belongs to the local cultural heritage; however the revival of the handicraft products could satisfy the needs of modern people and globalization; 4. Through reviving the traditional art of weaving, the people could increase their income.  In the two years period of the project, CHP undertook the following tasks: First, since the good reputation of the Mengma Archive project, CHP persuaded for the local government to permit the establishment of an independent organization, called the Menglian Traditional Weaving Promotion Association, which would have an independent bank account.  The first amount of money would be provided by CHP for free to meet the needs of the organization in the first two years.  Second, through the Mengma project CHP gained a good reputation and was able to persuade and encourage and guide the local folk cultural leaders to become core members of the association, and persuade other villagers to join the association, develop a public management system, and elect organization representatives. Thirdly, taking into account the similarities between Thailand traditional weaving and the Menglian people’s traditions, CHP hired a Thai expert to go to Menglian and help the association members improve the quality of dyes, tools, weave, design. Fourthly, after showing similar organizations in Europe and the United States, and products of similar value in New York, Paris, Shanghai, Beijing, CHP persuaded the organization to increase the quality and improve the work efficiency of the association. Fifth, after media promotion and advertising, CHP hopes to expand the scope of distribution.  Sixth, foster association management, train young female members of the association, and CHP also hired experts to help with financial management and production management.  After two years of experience with the project, CHP believes that the most difficult part of the project is raising the quality of the weaving and raising the management skills of the association.  In order to improve management, special training programs must be held.

Kashgar Old City

With the goal of using cultural heritage protection to resolve ethnic minority problems, CHP has also tried to be aware of sensitive points, and to use different methods to reach this goal.  Ethnicity, religion, history, and the reality in Kashgar have made it one of the most sensitive cities in the past few decades.  In Kashgar, ethnic minorities are faced with myriad problems, still existing, including government-alleged terrorist activities and also earthquakes. As some Uighur friends expressed, the city of Kashgar is the spiritual home of the Uighurs; without it there would be no peace among the Uighurs.  Some Han friends say that the city should have a new life and that local people should not be living in such crowded quarters.  Foreign friends have expressed that the wealth of history and culture in old Kashgar even exceeds that of Marrakech in Morocco or Cordoba in Spain.  With proper management and protection, the old city of Kashgar could be one of the world’s most special tourist attractions.

CHP opposes all terrorist activities and understands that earthquakes pose risks.  We also know that different minority groups have different needs.  The old town is a gathering place of extreme importance and meaning to Uighurs.  Combining the factors of separatism, earthquake risk, religion together meant that the problem of heritage conservation was almost entirely off-limits.  CHP worked hard as an NGO to find a breakthrough. In recent years, the government had invited a university to present its urban development plan for Kashgar. After finishing the work, the university rashly presented its plan to the official media.  Not only was this reckless politically but also academically ignorant and immoral.  According to their plan, the future of Kashgar and the Uighur people would have no relationship with religion and Uighur tradition.  Of course it would be able to withstand minor earthquakes, but this is only to serve the emerging Kashgar economic development zone with a few of very famous ancient buildings.

The recklessness of this plan gave CHP several opportunities: Kashgar old city is a national level historical and cultural city of China, and there are legal regulations for historical and cultural cities.  This plan is obviously illegal in light of these laws and regulations and CHP has reason to criticize the plans for this point.

After communicating by Internet and mobile phones, CHP issued widespread notification and provided response to various questions.  CHP provided criticism in response to the important questions of whether the development of the old city would accommodate different groups, CHP provided ideas and argument to help the government guide the city and help residents develop Kashgar into one of the most unique tourist sites in the world.  At the same time it is important to protect the Uighur spiritual home.  In response to the public criticism, the local government invited UNESCO to come to the Kashgar Old City to inspect and make recommendations.  During the National People’s Congress the local government representatives introduced the working plan for Old City of Kashgar.  Both the invitation to UNESCO and announcing the working plan at the congress were unique for government response in China.

Of course CHP cannot know for certain the future of old Kashgar, but there are two points that are clear: the worst case result will be avoided; the university-led plan has been cancelled.  CHP believes that both the local government officials and local people working in this process have made a great step towards better understanding of the protection of cultural heritage city. In addition to the aforementioned work and with professional help of international experts, CHP has produced a Guidelines for the Protection and Development of Old Kashgar and given this to the local government and Uighur community.  CHP believes that many people have already been moved by these recommendations.  CHP also believes that by not exaggerating the threats of terrorism and earthquakes, know more that different minority groups have different needs, the city of Kashgar will have a bright future.

IV.  Looking Forward

According the introduction above, it is not easy for CHP to be careful and completely avoid hassling the government.  However, in the midst of a China that is constantly changing, if CHP did not do this kind of work it would be uninteresting, irrelevant, and even negligent. Therefore, it has been CHP’s chief priority to support the law and not go beyond the duty of  protecting cultural heritage, to find a balance between encouragement and criticism. To probe whether an independent and influential NGO can survive in China’s political situation is itself another part of CHP’s work and responsibility. The value is not only to protect historical cities but also to have a clear authoritative source of information and unique resource that is resolute in its purpose and goals.  CHP has witnessed some organizations carry out activities in China; but this begs the question: if you do not understand China’s politics and society how can you hope to reform it?  China’s current political and social management system is a vast entity, a living organism of sorts that can roll over nascent organizations very quickly.  To survive and avoid such a fate is important but not easy.

In addition to negotiating the political realm, CHP also needs to think about the essence of its internal management structure and methods.  Since the Reform and Opening Up period, many international businesses have set up in China, bringing with them knowledge of management skills and other experiences.  Overtime, local young people with management skills will enter the nonprofit sector.  However, it is hard for grassroots change to occur overnight.  In this process CHP hopes the future will be better.  Everyday CHP sustains the pressure of fundraising.  CHP is able to understand that donating money is a cultural activity that requires more time to develop in China.  CHP has also been able to understand that foreign organizations and foundations in China have their working way, plan and purpose. In this process CHP also hopes the future will be better.

Will NGOs be able to change the status of heritage preservation in China? From the experience of CHP the answer is clearly positive and optimistic.  CHP faces many hurdles, including those common to all NGOs, but also unique challenges.  New difficulties will emerge and new projects will continue, but we hope CHP is able to receive even more support and assistance in the future.

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