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China's Heritage Sites In Danger (SLIDESHOW)

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Despite the perception that China is fast becoming the world's next super economic power and given the development boom of major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, many are led to overlook the widespread poverty that still exists in China. According to the World Bank's poverty threshold of $1.25 per day, there were 207 million Chinese living under the poverty line in 2005.

The extreme disparity between rich and poor, urban and rural areas, and the disproportional emphasis on development has caused a great number of major historical sites in outlying, poorer areas to lack the necessary expertise or funding. The total budget of conservation fund from the central government in 2008 was 31.2 billion Yuan. This seemingly large amount is split between more than 1,200 national level sites and the more than 1,000 museums (for both site and artifact conservation), not to mention the numerous provincial and municipality level sites, historical cities, towns, and villages that are left out of the budget. This is also the same amount that the government spent on the construction of a single structure, the famous Olympic stadium "Bird's Nest" in Beijing. With the exception of a few world-famous sites, cultural heritage conservation is still a very weak cause in the wave of commercial development. Even in the major cities, prospects for historical sites can be dim as many of the appeals to save the Beijing Siheyuan and hutong (traditional courtyard house and streets) are not heeded. There were over 7,000 hutong in Beijing in 1949, but the number dropped by nearly half to 3,900 in the 1980s. And the number continues to fall, with about 600 hutongs disappearing every year.

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Since 2003, the non-profit international conservancy Global Heritage Fund (GHF) has been working on saving cultural heritage sites in some of the poorest regions like China that are short of preservation funding and expertise. Beginning with the conservation of Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan, GHF's China Heritage Program has 3 active projects under way today: Foguang Temple in Wutai Mountain and Pingyao Ancient City, both in Shanxi Province, and most recently, Shengwu lou, a tulou (earthen building) of Pinghe County in Fujian Province.

GHF Projects are undertaken based on the selection criteria established by GHF's Senior Advisory Board, a distinguished group of archaeological and historic preservation leaders. The organization's primary focus is to target endangered UNESCO World Heritage sites, either inscribed or on a tentative list in the poorest regions. GHF looks especially for projects with proven leaders, high potential for tourism and sustainability, the opportunity to improve the lives of local people, and the potential for in-country matching funding and new investment.

GHF has helped save heritage sites in China through - in part - significant investment in scientific work to ensure the highest standards and excellence in conservation. What has also been instrumental in conservation is the emphasis GHF places on devising conservation planning at both macro and micro scales, which has great impact in China, as plans, once approved, can enable GHF to accomplish key priorities and secure greater funding from the central, provincial and municipality government.

GHF works extremely hard to involve local communities in all aspects of planning, visioning and conservation, as well as economic development. GHF's newest project Fujian Tulou, captivated our attention when 46 of the 3,000 Tulous (earthen communal residences) in Fujian province were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage in 2008. We immediately understood the challenges - what will happen to the other 2,500 Tulous that were not inscribed? How can the local people both preserve and benefit from the fame of the Fujian Tulous and revitalize their pristine natural environment that has been degraded with unplanned construction, forest clearing and incompatible modern buildings?

Working in a vast country like China, with its long traditions of social and work cultures and particular political system, presents a number of challenges for an international conservancy. Each project - an ancient city, archaeological sites and living heritage sites - has many different considerations in the management and implementation that GHF utilizes. The only constant is GHF's Preservation by Design™ method that takes each GHF Project through a step-by-step analytic approach - planning and design, scientific conservation, community involvement and partnerships.

If we were to compare the two UNESCO World Heritage ancient cities of Lijiang in Yunnan in the southwest and Pingyao in Shanxi in the north, the language, culture, methods and organization are each entirely different. Lijiang has faced a tidal wave of tourism, now over 3 million visitors a year, greatly accelerating the conservation priorities. GHF's approach in Lijiang was to work with the 12 communal wards in the ancient city to define priorities, resulting in the restoration of over 178 historic residences, and helping to build the ancient town management team from 2 persons to over 150 trained professionals today. The GHF-supported master plan resulted in over 300,000 sq. meters of modern buildings to be demolished in the core UNESCO World Heritage site, reversing years of poor planning development encroaching on the ancient town and an exodus of local people.

Mass tourism, especially in China with 1.6 billion people, can rapidly destroy the sacredness of historic sites, corrupting authenticity with over-commercialization. GHF, along with conservation leaders across China, are sharing the burden of how to balance modernization and rapid growth, while keeping key heritage values - authenticity, integrity and living culture - strong and vibrant.

Based on GHF's experiences in Lijiang, as well as its planning and conservation in Pingyao (one of China's last intact walled ancient cities), GHF is determined not to fall into the trap of over-commercialization that can lead to loss of traditional lifestyle and tangible heritage. During the course of GHF's program execution, one of the major challenges came from the difficulty in fostering local partnerships, which was easier in Lijiang. This challenge did not occur because of the lack of commitment from the local partners, but due to the changing of administration officials and the need to re-train a new cadre of municipal leaders. In a country where good human relationships - guanxi - is one of the most important determinants to success, the regular changing of mayors and key players by the Chinese government causes delays which may not occur in other countries. GHF invests in overseas study trips and in many developing countries helps educate local partners on best practices for conservation and heritage management.

Despite the challenges, GHF has managed to overcome obstacles with reasonable success. This can be attributed to two main factors: the installation of the Preservation by Design™ process where a master conservation plan is always drawn up as the base of any project, and the enthusiasm and devotion shown by GHF's leadership and field team. I myself am a great China lover and speak Mandarin, as do other key GHF Trustees who have decades of experience in the country and truly appreciate the Chinese culture.

As an international organization, GHF has a fixed duration commitment to each project, usually 4-6 years. By establishing the key pillars of conservation success - planning, science, community and partnerships, GHF is greatly improving the odds for success and long-term sustainability, while ensuring the continuation of its preservation vision and key principles.

Our dedication to Pingyao Ancient City inspired the Chinese government to invite me to be only foreign torchbearer for the Olympics in acknowledgement of GHF's contribution to the city. The fact that a foreigner from Palo Alto cares that much for the cultural heritage and lives of people who cannot be more different than himself, has motivated and moved the local authorities to continued action and results. The building of a strong, local conservation team and appointment of a full-time field director further demonstrates GHF's devotion, investment and cultural sensitivity. In addition to the funding and technical support, this ensures independent international standards and monitoring of the local government's resolutions towards the protection and development of historical sites.

We look forward to continuing to build on our model to expand the impact and breadth of GHF's work beyond our four GHF Projects in China so that a new generation of conservation professionals and community leaders can be capable and effective stewards in their own cities and historic sites.


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