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UPDATED: September 6, 2010 NO. 25 JUNE 24, 2004
Heritage for All
Protecting China's world heritage sites and making youth aware is the best way to preserve these treasures

At the entrance of the meeting place in Paris where the 27th Session of the World Heritage Committee was held last year, 1,750 unique postcards mailed from China were a major attraction for participants. These cards became one of the favorite souvenirs and all of them were given out.

The cards are in fact not the formal printed postcards issued by post offices. Pictures and words on the cards were hand drawn and written by Chinese children from Suzhou, in eastern Jiangsu Province, voicing their heartfelt wishes to cherish all world heritages.

And this year, to continue the connection with Suzhou, the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee will be held in the flourishing city from June 28 to July 7.

Taking an active part

Noting that the world's cultural and natural heritages are increasingly threatened with destruction, not only from decay, but also by social and economic development, and protection of them at the national level is incomplete, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) felt it essential to establish an effective system of collective protection of the heritages.

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted at the 17th Session of the General Conference of the UNESCO held in Paris on November 16, 1972. To date, 177 countries signed the convention. Altogether 754 heritage sites from 129 member countries have been included in the World Heritage List.

China signed the convention on November 22, 1985, and became a member of the World Heritage Committee on October 29, 1999. Till now, 29 cultural and natural sites in China have been included in the World Heritage List, making China rank third of the 177 signatory countries, just after Spain and Italy, which have 37 and 36 respectively.

As a signatory country of the convention, China is much younger than Spain and Italy. But the rapid increase in the amount of China's heritage sites indicates that China is taking an active part in protecting its heritage and has really done a comparatively good job in protection, according to Professor Lu Zhou, Vice Dean of the School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, and Council Member of the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.

Heritage protection needs large amount of capital input. In recent years, government input in the protection has increased rapidly, Lu said. Annual investment in the protection by the Central Government alone is nearly 10 million yuan ($1.21 million).

Investment from local governments is also considerable. Take Sichuan Province, where five cultural and natural heritage sites are located, for example. The Sichuan Provincial Government has planned to invest a total of 1.4 billion yuan ($169 million) in 2004 and 2005, as special funds for improving and protecting the ecological environment of the heritage sites within the province.

Of this amount, 285 million yuan ($34.42 million) will be invested in the Mount Emei Scenic Area, including the Leshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area. The 2,690 households and a primary school inside the core scenic area will be moved out to restore the area's original natural scenery. Meanwhile, two sewage treatment plants will be built in the area. In Jiuzhaigou Valley and Huanglong scenic areas, 962 million yuan ($116.18 million) will be put into preservation of the natural forest and reforestation within and around the scenic areas.

China's efforts in protecting world heritage sites have won the acknowledgement of the World Heritage Committee. Its annual session will be held in China for the first time. Zhang Xinsheng, Vice Minister of Education has been appointed as the chairman of the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee.

What needs to be done?

According to the spirit of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, world heritage sites within a country should be protected strictly by law. In China, legal provisions on protecting the world heritages are included in the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics promulgated in 2002, as well as local protection regulations. However, China still lacks a special and comprehensive law on the protection of the world heritage sites, according to Xu Chuanxi, Professor of the China University of Political Science and Law, and the chairman's legal consultant of the coming session.

Xu points out that during the process of legislation, contradiction between protection and development is an unavoidable problem, which is also a problem prevalent in other countries when protecting world heritages.

For example, if the historic or natural site of a city is embodied in the World Heritage List, the city may make a series of development plans, including promotion of tourism. Economic development itself, like building skyscrapers and hydropower plants, can cause damage to the sites.

This contradiction can also be considered as the conflict between this generation and future generations, that is, to utilize the heritages or preserve them for future generations, says Xu. So whether heritage protection measures will affect the economic development or urban planning of a city is a main question facing domestic legislative work.

Legislation will be finished in three to five years, Xu estimates.

Having no uniform administration is another problem. The present situation is that the heritage sites are administrated in segments, said Professor Lu. Cultural properties are administrated by the State Administration of Cultural Heritages, while the Ministry of Construction has jurisdiction over natural heritages, as well as matters related to historic and cultural cities. This situation hampers the effective administration of the world heritages.

Many countries have a special government body for heritage protection, besides non-governmental organizations. China has been exploring such a suitable effective system, says Xu. In his opinion, an ideal system may consist of a specialized commission, not necessarily a ministry, with international vision and familiar with international laws, and experiences of other countries. Under this framework, there can be local regulations, which can be made different according to local conditions. The functions of non-governmental organizations like youth volunteers will also be included. In general, world heritages shall be administrated by the commission, with the cooperation of local governments and the function of non-governmental organizations.

When referring to the relationship between tourism and protection, both experts think that tourism cannot be simply regarded as a threat to heritage protection, though tourism does some harm. According to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, to present the heritage sites is one of the duties of a signatory country. Tourism is an important approach of presenting heritage sites to ordinary people.

But considering the wear and tear of cultural heritage sites and the damage to the ecological environment caused by tourism, measures should be taken to prevent heritages from being further damaged. The number of tourists and the time that the her- itages are open to tourists can be controlled, suggests Xu. Price of tickets to the heritage sites can also be raised to some extent, as the degree of the difficulty of visiting a site can indicate its value, says Lu.

In addition, to make up for the shortage of human resources in the protection program, conservation and presentation of the world heritage sites and to strengthen scientific research in the field, China is fostering the establishment of such training centers. A research and education center of the world heritage sites has been under construction in Suzhou.

World heritage in young hands

The participants to the 27th Session of the World Heritage Committee were deeply impressed by the special gift from Suzhou, praising Suzhou for choosing to use such an original concept and the involvement of young people, to show its treasure of world heritage sites.

Suzhou has set up a training school of painting the special kind of cards. Through painting, children can express their love for world heritage sites and the longing for the future, which can help them build a sense of responsibility and awareness in inheriting and protecting them, said the head of the school.

To greet the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee, an exhibition of these cards will be held. It has won the approval of the China National Commission for UNESCO, which has called on the children in other cities where world heritage sites are situated, to participate in this activity.

Meanwhile, China's national committee of UNESCO has planned to include heritage education into the teaching programs of Chinese high schools. It will begin from two or three high schools in Beijing and gradually spread to the whole country.

The Middle School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University will take the lead in developing the plan. Yuan Anjun, its schoolmaster, said that educating the youth on world heritage sites is an indispensable part of heritage protection.

Nationwide education on the world heritage sites will make known among the youth the function of these treasures in the development of human civilization, said Du Yue, Deputy Secretary General of the China National Commission for UNESCO.

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