Authenticity, Tourism, and Residents: the Dilemma of Heritage Conservation in China
In March 2019, five designated “national historical and cultural cities” (lishi wenhua mingcheng)–Datong, Luoyang, Hancheng, Harbin, and Liaocheng–were openly criticized for their incompetence to conserve material remains and the cultural value of their historic centers. This criticism was issued in an ordinance by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. The ordinance also called for corrective measures to be taken within a specified time limit, otherwise, these cities may be removed from the list of “national historical and cultural cities”. This would be the first delisting of this kind since 1982.
Over the years, the tension between the conservation of historical and cultural cities and urban construction in China has become increasingly acute. With the acceleration of urbanization, many historical and cultural cities have been severely damaged by large-scale reconstruction and real estate development. In the case of Liaocheng, almost all the authentic buildings in its old city center were demolished and replaced with modern replicas. Such tactless redevelopment can be found in many other old towns where heritage tourism is driving the local economy.
The development of tourism most certainly boosted the local economy as well as generating employment and income in such cities as Pingyao and Lijiang. These were the first Chinese cities to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and unlike Liaocheng, their original urban layout and buildings are well conserved. However, the rise of tourism also brings challenges such as pressure on local infrastructure and oftentimes the harassment of local residents; in spite of that, the quest for authenticity has become a critical factor spurring the redevelopment of old towns. For example, guidelines of so-called traditional Chinese architectural style are often imposed on the conserved area, and a range of ‘representative’ businesses and activities are selected by authorities to attract tourists. Such marketing strategies often turn these towns into more of a museum town, leading to a certain homogeneity across regions, with similar buildings, products, events, and even atmosphere. In the long run, this removal of any differentiation is counterproductive to the development of a sustainable tourism-based economy in many old towns.
Authenticity is often interpreted as how a city was imagined in the past. The bold revitalization projects of old towns are always driven by state-envisioned history and identity, which have little relevance to contemporary life and today’s residents. In 2014, over 20,000 residents were urged to move out of the historic area of Luoyang in the name of heritage conservation (later deemed unlawful by the court); whereas in Harbin, factories and residents in Russian historic areas were displaced to give way to a revitalization project in 2011. Although residents have few rights to protection from displacement in face of city’s revitalization project, they can benefit from it as well. For example, in Datong, dilapidated informal settlements were demolished to rebuild the ancient city wall. This action raised questions among Chinese heritage experts as to whether the wall should be rebuilt or not. However, most of the residents were in favor of the project as they were well compensated and relocated to modern apartments, which provided a huge improvement in their living standing.
Heritage conservation in China is often in conflict with the demands of preservation, economic development, and social equity. How to reconcile these divergences while identifying an inclusive and sustainable approach is a key question that these historical and cultural cities need to debate further.
Edited by: Jérémie Descamps
Datong, Luoyang, Hancheng, Harbin, Liaocheng