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Modernization Threatens China's Heritage - 2002-05-01

As China pushes ahead with modernization, many of the country's cultural treasures have been neglected. UNESCO has helped encourage preservation of ancient history by adding Chinese sites to its world heritage list. But government campaigns to preserve Chinese heritage often backfire.

Bulldozers and men with pickaxes tear down block after block of old houses in the industrial city of Anyang, in China's central Henan province. Red painted characters for "demolish" cover the gray brick walls. Migrant workers clamber through the rubble, looking for items to be recycled. This is what the local government calls preservation of its cultural heritage.

More than 3,000 years ago, kings from the ancient Shang dynasty built their capital at Yin, which has now become Anyang city. Oracle bones discovered on this site provide the earliest records of Chinese writing. Archaeologists here have excavated some of the finest relics from China's Bronze Age.

But the government says the houses built around these ancient ruins have become an eyesore and must be torn down. Anyang is in a no-holds-barred race to become the next city in China chosen by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Anyang's vice mayor Xiao Jiye says that in the past, the local government didn't have enough money to fund projects to preserve its cultural heritage. He says Anyang has been dogged by unemployment and poverty, and is struggling to keep up with the rapid economic growth in China's coastal regions. Anyang residents make an average of less than $700 a year, well below urban incomes elsewhere in the country. It is now succumbing to bulldozers.

Mr. Xiao says the government is spending $24 million to demolish what it considers inappropriate buildings and renovate historical sites.

The pressure on the vice mayor is telling when he suddenly bursts into tears before a room full of journalists.

Struggling to control his sobbing, Mr. Xiao vows to achieve victory for his city. He says if Anyang fails in this campaign, he won't be able to face his superiors or the people he governs.

Anyang is not alone in this race. At least four other Chinese cities this year are vying for the prestige and economic returns that come with the UNESCO brand name. China already has 27 UNESCO-approved heritage sites, behind only Italy and Spain. Some of the more famous sites include the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The country has received millions of dollars from foreign governments and corporations to preserve its heritage sites. Once a city joins the coveted UNESCO list, revenue from tourism also shoots up.

But China has already come under criticism for failing to maintain its existing sites. UNESCO officials rebuked the local government of Chengde, the mountainous imperial capital in Hebei province, for a building frenzy that they said ruined the townscape. UNESCO also threatened to revoke the world heritage status of Zhangjiajie, a forest reserve in Hunan province, because of excessive pollution.

Mr. Xiao insists that his government is not seeking monetary gain from a UNESCO listing. He says the whole city is now prepared to make major sacrifices to ensure the preservation of its history.

He says the government has asked Anyang residents to contribute money to the heritage campaign. So far, he says residents have pledged more than $2 million. Mr. Xiao adds that the government is soliciting donations only from the gainfully employed residents.

Mr. Li, 67, is one of the thousands of inhabitants living in designated historical areas, who must move away to make room for the government's world heritage project. Mr. Li, who reveals his last name only, watches as bulldozers rip apart the buildings on both sides of his six-member household.

Mr. Li says he contributed $84 to the government's bid to win world heritage status. That's 1.5 times the average monthly salary in Anyang - a hefty sum even for someone with full-time employment. But Mr. Li says no one in his household has a job. Asked how he can afford to contribute so much money, Mr. Li smiles awkwardly, then brushes aside the question. It's good for the country, he says.