Greater obstacles await future world heritage applications

16:40, June 27, 2011      

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The 35th World Heritage Conference is currently being held in Paris. The conference completed a review on the protection of 169 heritage items and the next agenda is to review 37 natural and cultural heritage sites that have made applications to be listed on the "World Heritage List," including China's applications of the West Lake scenic area in Hangzhou as a cultural heritage site and the Wudalianchi Lake in Heilongjiang province.

However, Tong Mingkang, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, frankly said that the road to apply for world heritage will become more difficult in the future. Therefore, China should learn not to be too disappointed in world heritage applications.

China has a total of 40 world heritage sites as of June 2010, steadily ranking third worldwide and has maintained the momentum of successful applications for eight consecutive years. The "World Heritage List" contains a total of 911 heritage items with "outstanding universal value," including 704 cultural heritage items, 180 natural heritage items and 27 cultural and natural heritage items from 151 contracting states. As the "Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" will meet its 40th anniversary in 2012, the argument of protecting the "rareness" of world heritage items is put forward again.

Tong said that the annual number of approved world heritage items has remained around 20 in recent years. For example, there were 22 approved world heritage items in 2007, 27 approved in 2008, 13 approved in 2009 and 21 approved in 2010. In other words, half of applications will not succeed.

Tong also said that there are four reasons why world heritage applications will become tougher. The first is the balance principle of the World Heritage Committee, also known as the tilt principle. The World Heritage Committee has emphasized that it will tilt to those contracting states that do not have world heritage items. The "World Heritage Convention" currently contains 187 contracting states while only 151 contracting states have world heritage items, and more than 30 contracting countries still do not have any.

The World Heritage Committee favors contracting states that have not applied for World Heritage Status for their heritage for many years and states that have seldom succeeded despite frequent applications. Egypt and India both have a long history and splendid culture but do not have many World Heritage Sites. India owned 13 World Heritage Sites in 1987 and after more than 20 years, the number has only increased to 26. China already has many World Heritage Sites and has successful World Heritage listings almost every year, so it will be more and more difficult for Chinese heritage sites to be included on the World Heritage List.

Second, contracting states that already own many World Heritage Sites have to endure the increasingly strict application standards set by the heritage committee. The committee has a unique set of selection criteria, and sites must be of outstanding universal value to be included on the World Heritage List.

The committee has clear requirements for the content of applications as well as the plans for protecting a potential heritage site and improving its surrounding environment. Experts are very strict about the quality of application content, especially when it comes to the universal value of a heritage site. China's applications were often revised many times before meeting the required standards. The applicants themselves have withdrawn the World Heritage status applications for five sites this year simply because of the strict standards. The withdrawal has been commonplace in recent years.

Furthermore, the committee is paying more and more attention to the protection of World Heritage Sites. A site may be removed from the World Heritage List if it fails to keep its outstanding universal value due to the local government's ineffective protection. Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley and Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary have been removed from the list for this reason.

In addition to the impact of natural disasters and wars, the issue about which the World Heritage Committee is most concerned is the damage to heritage value caused by new construction activities, over-commercialization and inappropriate use of heritage. The committee has conducted related inquiries into the Old Town of Lijiang, the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace and the Historic Centre of Macao in 2011.

Excessive pursuit of economic interests, over-commercialization and a large number of inharmonious buildings are common problems in buffer areas of many world heritage sites. Many local Chinese governments faced with a choice between developing the economy or protecting heritage chose the former. These activities will negatively affect China's future world heritage applications.

Tong said that monotonousness of the sites on China's tentative list also makes the applications more difficult. As 704 out of the 911 world heritage items is cultural heritage, the percentage of cultural heritage is too high. Therefore, the World Heritage Committee has always sought to change the imbalance and irrationality on the world heritage list and has been committed to including prehistoric, contemporary and industrial sites into the list. According to the "tentative list" released by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage on Dec.15, 2006, the sites are mostly historical remains and cultural heritage, making their applications more difficult.

Tong said that the World Heritage Committee is made up of 21 state parties elected from the signatories to the convention. China will no longer be among the 21 state parties from October 2011 and lose voting rights, which could perhaps be considered an unfavorable factor.

By Yang Xuemei from People's Daily and the article is translated by People's Daily Online.

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