China: Reflections on Growth and Heritage

Ruan Yisan Heritage Foundation

Last year I had the privilege of visiting China as a guest of the British Council. Looking back now, the overwhelming impression is one of scale. Everything is enormous. Suzhou Railway Station would dwarf most international airports. Construction is happening everywhere. And in large proportions.

During the 1½ hour drive between Shanghai and the water towns, there was little that could be called countryside. Just acres of urban sprawl. Meals are delicious but copious and never ending. Consumption generally seems large and a hunger for global brands prevails. The Shanghai Metro Stations offer a vast subterranean world of shopping (and confusion between myriad exits!). Blocks that appear a short hop on the map turn out to be a major hike.

Marie Georges explaining Rempart site

Marie Georges explaining Rempart site

Despite this powerful sense of an unstoppable juggernaut of growth – that, to quote Dr Zeus’s Lorax, just keeps ‘biggering and biggering and biggering’, there was much to encourage the heritage professional.

The places we visited, especially Zhouzhuang and to a lesser extent Tongli, Suzhou and Pingyao, were busy with tourists. Mostly Chinese people and many on what appeared to be organised group tours. There is a palpable need to ‘see’ places which has of course impacted on quality of visit/sense of place. Zhouzhuang was particularly busy, with infrastructure bursting to capacity.

The local heritage professionals we met understood that this kind of intense tourism was not sustainable and were eager to share experience. I was surprised by the openness of those we met, who happily voiced challenges and shortcomings, such as an undue focus on economic development, poor enforcement/lack of regulation, failures in urban planning and limited funding.

The mayor explaining to group

The mayor explaining to group

The invitation to Shanghai came about as part of the British Council’s UK Now Festival, which is marking the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The aim was to share experience in the field of cultural heritage, to show how National Trusts are balancing tourism, economic growth and environmental issues, and to discuss best practice in heritage education and youth engagement.

Understandably, finding the right balance between economic development and heritage protection was high on everyone’s agenda.

Clearing historic buildings to make way for high rises, mindlessly following the European style of architecture and building fake reproductions/inventions (such as city walls that never existed) were also of concern to all.

The water towns are cited as a success story for the way historic buildings (and therefore in many people’s eyes, creativity, tolerance and inclusiveness) have been preserved.

Our Chinese colleagues were very interested in hearing more about how to ensure good (planning) decisions are made, how public and private funding streams work (and how to make more of a case for the latter), volunteerism and the CSR agenda, and successful education and training programmes.

In Tongli we learned that 20% of the entrance ticket price (100 RMB, circa £10) was spent on heritage protection with tourism providing 50% of GDP. The importance of water means that environmental issues and eco-tourism are also coming up the agenda. As in many places, striking the right balance between quality of life for the local community and providing an authentic tourist experience is challenging.

The way our hosts talked about understanding visitor needs, letting people ‘feel the quiet’, providing a quality product, protecting the rights of local people, profit sharing and the need for innovation felt very comfortable (if not massively in evidence) and I think there is much that we could share in the future.

Later in the year INTO, the British Council, the Ruan Yisan Heritage Foundation and the National Trust cooperated on a working holiday programme in Tongli where young professionals worked with local craftsmen on the restoration of a turn of the century cottage hospital. Further working holidays are planned in 2013 and we look forward to future collaboration!


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