Boasting 4000 years of history beginning with the Xia Dynasty in 2100 BCE, China's heritage in modern times has had to weather foreign invasions, civil war and the destructive madness associated with the Cultural Revolution.

 

Now it seems China's illustrious past is being, quite literally, concreted over.

 

With pressures from a growing population, rapid urbanisation and steady economic growth, cultural preservation has taken a back seat to China's ongoing construction boom.

 

The magnitude of the challenge can be gauged from the fact that delegates at the Suzhou conference even questioned a number of winners of the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site accolade about the standard of upkeep at their sites.

 

Cases in point

 

With regard to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, traditional home of the Dalai Lama, and the Forbidden City in Beijing, the complaints were that the sites were being inappropriately maintained despite the added income generated from large tourist numbers.

 

Conservation is hard to push at a
time of unsettling social changes

According to reports from aggrieved Tibetans, repairs to the Potala Palace are being carried out by unskilled workmen who are only further damaging the intricate internal designs.

 

As far as Beijing is concerned, local media sources told Aljazeera.net that the city government had last month contravened a UNESCO requirement by erecting an unsightly electricity tower inside a proscribed "buffer zone" that surrounds the 250-year-old collection of gardens, lakes and temples that make up the Qing Dynasty Summer Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Obstacle course

 

Concerns over specific heritage sites are only the tip of the iceberg, says He Shuzhong of the group Cultural Heritage Watch.

 

In a series of reports he and his colleagues have catalogued a list of wide-ranging issues that highlight the difficulties of promoting a concept of heritage conservation in a nation undergoing unsettling social changes.

 

The problems include:

 

? The pillaging of archeological sites and illegal selling of antiquities, often by those people assigned to protect them.

 

? The perception that the issue of cultural conservation is subservient and detached from that of modern development.

 

? A linking of preservation to one of potential commercial exploitation, with the result that local officials often construct inappropriately designed hotels, restaurants and markets next to scenic landmarks and then fail to use the income derived from heritage sites to ensure future preservation.

 

Wrong angle

 

In a speech highlighting the effect the government's ongoing scheme to develop the poorer western provinces will have on the area's historical sites, He estimates 80% of the heritage in key project sites like the Three Gorges Reservoir will be lost.

 

"We simply focus on GDP growth as the indication to being modern rather than anything cultural"

Chen Zhihua,
professor of architecture,
Tsinghua University

Talking to Aljazeera.net, Chen Zhihua, a professor at Tsinghua University's architecture department, said although China faces a need to develop itself and its cities, the government and public are looking at heritage preservation from the wrong angle.

 

One problem, says Chen, is the question of what is meant by "modernisation". In official parlance, Chen suggests modernising means the eradication of poverty within cities by simply building over the older, less amenable housing without consideration for any wider architectural or ascetic values.

 

"China just does not understand 'modernisation'. We simply focus on GDP growth as the indication of being modern rather than anything cultural," he said.

 

"Look at the resettlement programme going on at the moment in Beijing - it's creating more poverty in the name of modernisation," Chen said in reference to an ongoing redesign of the traditional city centre, which entails the relocation of many lifelong residents to the suburbs.

 

Ongoing damage

Between 1980 and 1999, on average half a million square metres of housing were destroyed a year in Beijing.

 

The income generated by tourism
is not benefiting heritage sites

One of the first cities to create protection zones for its historical housing, Beijing has proved poor at maintaining them. Ongoing plans to drive major roads through the narrow streets of the city centre by knocking down so-called protected housing continues to provoke debate in the local press.

 

When Aljazeera.net visited one protected zone close to a 1000-year-old mosque, all that was left of the houses was rubble, and a group of beggars gathered at the mosque entrance.

 

Many Chinese believe their country needs a modern infrastructure, wide roads and inhabitable housing. And that may have to come at some cost.

 

"The emphasis has to be on the economy and creating jobs, and construction is one of the biggest employers around," Li, the general manager of one construction firm, says.

 

However, he adds, public tastes are changing, as evidenced by polls showing dissatisfaction with the way the city's historical souls are being destroyed or neglected.

 

Blind eye

Li says "close relations" between local governments and construction firms such as his own further complicate the issue.

 

Fast-changing Chinese cities are
condemning their old buildings

"A blind eye can be turned when building in certain areas as the government sees modern construction as being of greater value than seemingly worthless old buildings," he said.

 

One solution, suggests Malte Selugga, a German architect based in Beijing, is for the city governments to have a better idea of what they want out of a city.

 

"Traditional single-storey courtyard housing is in many ways inappropriate for China's housing needs but their high-rise concrete replacements add nothing to the cities' heritage value," he said. 

According to Chen Zhihua at Tsinghua University, what is needed is not money but a changing of attitudes and education. "Many local governments are striving hard to protect areas around them but the will and understanding is not completely there."

That, he hopes, will come with time.