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.

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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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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