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As China Urbanizes, History Is Lost Forever

In Beijing alone, more than 1,000 acres of historical areas have been lost since 1990. As rural Chinese move to cities, the country must figure out how to preserve its heritage.

Bulldozers in Shimen, in China's Hunan Province
Bulldozers in Shimen, in China's Hunan Province
Dai Qingli and Wei Lei

BEIJING — China is quite literally burying its history. A significant number of historic sites have paid a heavy price over the past two decades for China's rapid economic growth and massive urbanization, during which tens of thousands of historical monuments have been bulldozed.

And in the next six years, as many as 100 million Chinese people will migrate from rural areas to cities. Towering skyscrapers, massive street blocks, industrial parks, multi-lane highways and shopping malls have and will replace ancient temples, traditional courtyards, palaces and tombs. The Chinese sense of community is changing. In many cases, people can no longer walk to work or shop in their own neighborhoods. Driving has become a basic requirement — which means that cities are being built for cars instead of people.

As many as 900,000 villages have disappeared in the past 10 years, according to data from China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH). Apart from being able to attract tourism and accompanying revenue, the preservation of historical towns and relics can also make these places more attractive to would-be residents, boosting long-term competitiveness.

Big cities have mushroomed in every corner of the country, and they lack Chinese characteristics. President Xi Jinping indicated in the National New Urbanization Plan (2014-2020) published last year that conserving and recovering China's traditional architectural history would be a top priority in future development.

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Historic buildings in Guangdong, southern China — Photo: Kevin Poh

In Beijing alone, more than 1,000 acres of historic alleys, traditional quadrangle houses, and street shops have been demolished since 1990. The destroyed area accounts for 40% of the capital's central area. That would be like replacing New York's Central Park and surrounding streets with new high-rise buildings. Beijing's lifestyle and history are the victims.

China's current economic model is losing momentum. Urbanization is vital for stimulating growth both domestically and in exports, which is all the more reason why Chinese cities must find a way to stand out. Not every city needs its own luxurious shopping mall, steel manufacturing plant, garment factories, or eight-lane highways.

Last year, Premier Li Keqiang signed an agreement with UNESCO to strengthen the role of culture in promoting sustainable urban development and in safeguarding China's historical sites. Protecting and restoring historic monuments can bring residents a sense of pride and identity, and in turn promote creativity and growth.

In addition, heritage tourism generates income. Last year the number of domestic tourism visits totaled 2.6 billion, a huge increase when compared to five years ago. The most popular tourist destinations are those that have obtained the title of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Many impoverished rural people have realized that one of the ways to catch up with the wealth of the affluent coastal regions is to preserve their ancestral heritage.

China and Italy have the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world — 47 each. In comparison, Egypt has only seven. As International Monetary Fund data show, making it to the World Heritage list can increase per capita income by 10.4% in certain areas, boosted by tourism.

The remaining question is how to balance historic preservation with growing numbers of visitors. China must avoid killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

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