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Something special
Something special
Sun Le

-Essay-

BEIJING – On April 10, Fenghuang, a popular tourist town that is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list, started charging entry for visitors, triggering public outcry in China.

Fenghuang is located in Xiangxi Prefecture, in China’s central Hunan Province, which is home to the Miao and Tujia ethnic minorities.

Now, whoever wants to enter the town, whether visiting relatives, friends or for sightseeing, has to pay a "toll" for the privilege.

The new 148-Yuan ($24) entry ticket allows visitors to access the Fenghuang Ancient City, as well as the neighboring Shenfong Scenic Park and Nanhua Mountain.

This immediately sparked public uproar – with riot police being called in to quell protests by hundreds of local residents who believe the entry-fee will negatively impact tourism and trade.

As the three-day May Day public holiday approaches, Internet users have joined the protest, launching an online campaign to call for a boycott of the town and accusing Fenghuang authorities of “highway robbery.” Those who oppose the new toll question the legitimacy of such a move by local authorities.

Fenghuang is not just a scenic site. It is a city where indigenous ethnic minorities and migrants have lived and thrived in for centuries. Tourists come here because they want to see the well-maintained traditional stilt houses over the river. Local authorities saw a business opportunity and decided to cash in. But does it have the authority to do it? To turn this quaint tourist town into a “fortress?”

The role of a government is to provide public services. Its legitimacy is granted by the people. Whether it’s the natural landscape or the human and cultural heritage of this ancient city, they are all derived from the accumulation of nature and history.

If it has to belong to someone, then it is jointly owned by the people who were born here and have grown up here. It is these people’s ancestors who created the history of this town and tended to its environment. The local government is only authorized to administer the city on behalf of its constituents. Unfortunately, the reality is that Fenghuang authorities treat these people’s heritage as if it was their own private property. It has packaged their heritage and transferred it to a private tourism company in which it holds 49% of shares. In doing this they are eroding public tourism resources.

Unrestrained power

The Fenghuang case is just one in a number of cases where the government has extended its visible hand beyond its authority. Perhaps local governments view such issues as insignificant. But if all local authorities in China were to follow suit – just imagine how many historic and scenic sites would become “fortresses.”

It is worrying that the local government can be allowed to just take control of public property, extend its power unrestrainedly and nibble away at public resources that represent the livelihood of so many people. If the public allows such power to go unchecked, than it will put the entire society at risk of having a government with unlimited power, but with limited responsibility. This is called a dictatorship.

The wheels of history cannot go backwards. China today urgently needs to define the limits of public power and clarify what local governments are allowed to do or not to do. Power that doesn’t belong to the government needs to be handed back to the people. Otherwise, governments will just pursue their own interests in the name of the public good. Having unclear limits of power gives legitimacy to authorities when they seize public resources as their own and violate their constituents’ rights.

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(photo: magicalworld)

What is comforting is that the Fenghuang case has shown that people won’t stand for the abuse of public power. And in fact, after the protests the entry-fee for students was lowered from 80 to 20 Yuan (50c to 12c) and was waived for visitors from nearby regions.

In the past other historic towns such as Zhouzhuang in Jiansu Province, Wuzhen and Xitang in Zhejiang Province, Hongcun in Anhui Province, have imposed entry-fees. Nevertheless, the silence of the local population doesn’t mean that it is ok. The fact that people weren’t paying attention in the past doesn’t mean that no one will be paying attention later. There is always a “last straw.”

What happened at Fenghuang makes us want to care more about our rights and interests. We have seen an awakening public that will no longer choose to be silent.

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