Thirst for profits risks historic sites

09:09, May 20, 2011      

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The way China treats its cultural relics has come under fire in the wake of allegations that important historical sites have been misused.

Reports of the existence of an exclusive club for wealthy people within the Forbidden City's Jianfu Palace stirred up the emotions of many Chinese netizens. Membership of the club reportedly costs 1 million yuan ($154,000).

However, the apparently inappropriate use of cultural landmarks does not stop at the Forbidden City's impressive walls.

The villa residence of Soong May-ling (wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the late leader of the Kuomintang) in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, which was listed as a historical and cultural site under State protection in 2001, has reportedly been turned into a high-end restaurant that hosts elite wedding banquets.

The high-profile allegations have triggered an outcry from many people and caused critics to question whether China's cultural sites are under threat from those who want to squeeze a profit from them.

"It is undeniable that the current system for the preservation of cultural relics has several loopholes," said Gao Guoxi, a professor from the social science department at the Shanghai-based Fudan University.

Gao said it is not rare in China to see ancient locations being exploited for commercial gain and many people and organizations have tried to cash in.

However, the thirst for land for development seems to be an even bigger challenge for those wanting to preserve the country's historic sites.

In the city of Hangzhou, in East China's Zhejiang province, the development of an area that was home to the remains of a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) imperial city has continued without approval for more than a year.

The area was listed as a historical and cultural site under State protection in 2001 and was also listed as one of China's most important protected relics during the period of the country's 11th Five-year Plan (2006-2010).

Liang Baiquan, former director of the Nanjing Museum, said such cases illuminate a decline in morality.

"The precious cultural resources of the public have been hijacked by the privileged class," he said. "This shows that society is courting quick profits and is a sign of moral degradation."

According to China's regulations regarding the preservation of cultural relics, construction companies are required to fully research and investigate prospective construction sites to ensure that they are not under State protection before they start construction work.

However, the regulations are rarely followed and enforcement is often non-existent.

A survey of construction sites in Beijing showed that, out of 4,191 projects completed in 2007 and 2008, only 2.3 percent followed the regulations regarding cultural relic preservation. The survey was conducted by the Beijing municipal people's political consultative conference.

An Jiayao, a researcher from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that, while China has trumpeted its protection of cultural relics in the past, a lack of true understanding of the significance of those relics has resulted in poor enforcement of regulations.

Gao said China needs to take a tougher line and penalize violators if it wants to prevent further damage to its cultural relics.

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