Tibet Scholars’ Appeal to Halt the Destruction of Old Lhasa


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2013-05-15 18:28

That scholars of Tibet should be primarily concerned with destruction in Tibet is understandable, but UNESCO's complete incompetence in enforcing the terms of the World Heritage convention to which China is a state party go back a long way, and not only in Lhasa, but at almost every single site in China which has attained World Heritage listing.

The purpose in China of gaining UNESCO listing is the development of tourism, and is it standard procedure to carry out unauthorised development at sites and within their buffer zones; to pull down and rebuild ancient buildings; to carry out unauthorized, unsupervised and highly inauthentic 'conservation'; to ignore agreed limits on tourist volumes; and for the UNESCO World Heritage committee not only to fail to take any action, but to continue to allow China to add to its list of properties.

Violations in the historic centre of Lhasa may be amongst the most egregious examples, but the petition is addressed to two parties with a long history of doing nothing, or doing the wrong thing. It lets UNESCO off the hook for its repeated failures there to date, and openly offers the Chinese government some scapegoats ('local officials and business interests') for its own abuses rather than taking it properly to task.

The process of turning UNESCO-listed locations into '21st-century tourist towns' is commonplace in China, and is the very purpose of obtaining listing in the first place. To ask others to give priority to considering Lhasa provides the perfect opportunity for diversion into the kind of sterile debate and inaction beloved of UNESCO, as there are other conservation crises in China let alone in the world as a whole that are equally deserving of attention.

In short this petition, while having its heart in the right place, is ill thought-out both in terms of its targets and its requests, and will achieve nothing.