The Chinese Way: Harnessing the power of cultural heritage for inclusive and sustainable development
Updated 13:52, 13-Oct-2022
Shahbaz Khan
The Chinese Way: Harnessing the power of cultural heritage for inclusive and sustainable development

Editor's note: Decision Makers is a global platform for decision makers to share their insights on events shaping today's world. Shahbaz Khan is the Director of UNESCO's Beijing Office. The article reflects the authors' opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Confucius, the great Chinese educator, philosopher and statesman, once made a comment on the value of culture to a nation's development philosophy: "If people from lands far away feel alienated from us, we should embrace them by cultivating our own culture and virtue." About 2000 years later, UNESCO was founded in the 20th century after two devastating world wars, under a deep conviction similar to that of Confucius, that political and economic agreements between states are not enough to secure the sincere support of the peoples. Only a human-centered approach to development based on mutual respect and open dialogue among cultures can lead to lasting peace.

However, the divisive forces underlying the global pandemic, the deepening climate crisis and the bleak international geopolitical reality, are driving us into an increasingly fragmented world plagued by all sorts of risks and insecurities. We have never been more in need of culture, as an indispensable soft power, which can restore social cohesion and rebuild the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind. In this regard, China has set a wonderful example in harnessing the power of culture and heritage to foster international solidarity and implement constructive global governance.

China is the States Parties to five out of six UNESCO Cultural Conventions, and is now home to 56 World Heritage sites and 42 elements inscribed in the lists of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It has 16 cities of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. With all the extensive knowledge of safeguarding heritage and mobilizing the role of culture and creativity for sustainable development, China is becoming a hub for good practice in heritage conservation and development, while working closely with UNESCO to bring many of these good and adaptable practices to a global level.

Over the past decades, China has been steadily becoming a leading figure in facilitating international dialogue and collaborations on heritage conservation and sustainable development among member states, advisory bodies, experts and civil society, and has made commendable efforts in supporting other developing countries to enhance the implementation of the World Heritage Convention. Since 1989, China has been providing technical assistance to Cambodia in restoring the Angkor monuments. After the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage site in Nepal in April 2015, China pledged 94 million yuan to start a five-year project to restore the Basantapur Tower. 

Since 2017, China has jointly organized with UNESCO four International Youth Forums on Creativity and Heritage along the Silk Roads, which have brought together young women and men from over 100 countries along the Silk Roads to contribute to the dialogue on heritage conservation and development. China has also forged strong collaboration with Africa in the field of World Heritage since 2018 through joint projects supporting long-term capacity building and strengthening monitoring and management systems of African World Heritage properties. Notably, China has served four times as a World Heritage Committee member, and has twice hosted the World Heritage Committee meeting – 2004 in Suzhou, and 2021 in Fuzhou, actively fulfilling its commitment to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda by strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage.

On a different note, an overarching theme of the UN 2030 Agenda is the famous and often quoted catchphrase "leaving no one behind." The weight behind these four simple words is nonetheless easily ignored. Today's societies are constantly burdened with a hybrid reality — rampant hate speech in cyberspace and staggering inequality manifested in both financial and ideological forms in real life. Discrimination, both as a destructive psychological tendency lurking behind our collective unconsciousness and as a repressive social construct, sometimes blatantly institutionalized within different parts of our societal systems, must be eradicated in all its noticeable shapes and colors, if we are truly committed to achieving inclusive and equitable social progress.

In this regard, whether a country truly lives up to its promise to leave no one behind hinges on whether it allows the dividends of development to reach the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society. This humanistic concern has already been echoed early on in the Chinese tradition of political philosophy.

Students from the Central Primary School in Tiantai Town learn knowledges about Yichun woodcarving in Zhongkeng Village, Yichun City, Jiangxi Province, China, September 30, 2022. /VCG
Students from the Central Primary School in Tiantai Town learn knowledges about Yichun woodcarving in Zhongkeng Village, Yichun City, Jiangxi Province, China, September 30, 2022. /VCG

Students from the Central Primary School in Tiantai Town learn knowledges about Yichun woodcarving in Zhongkeng Village, Yichun City, Jiangxi Province, China, September 30, 2022. /VCG

"The blessing of a country that will lead it to prosperity is to treat its people with great affection as if they were wounded." This is the insight on the fundamental principles of good governance made by the great Chinese historian, Zuo Qiuming, an esteemed contemporary of Confucius.

China has always been a good student of its own history. Over the past decades, China has made tremendous efforts in promoting the lives and livelihoods of the over 85 million people with disabilities living in the country. Following the more than 130 laws and administrative regulations formulated concerning the protection of rights of the disabled community in China, over 1,700 cities and counties nationwide have initiated efforts to improve accessibility and remove barriers for persons with disabilities. As the national endeavor continues, the Legislation on the Construction of Barrier-Free Environment in China is under preparation, which is a huge step towards promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities at the national level. 

The 2022 Winter Paralympics has set an excellent example, in which we witnessed a total of 336,000 barrier-free facilities established in Beijing only. This has elevated public awareness and the need for accessibility to an unprecedented level. Moreover, China has ratified The Marrakesh Treaty to facilitate access to published works for persons who are blind, visually impaired, and otherwise print disabled people. The Treaty came into effect in May 2022 and will certainly play a positive role in the cultural and educational industries for the 17.32 million people with visual disabilities and other people with print disability in China.

The social progress achieved by China today and its contribution to international governance is not a historical coincidence. It has been made possible by the conscious effort of 1.4 billion Chinese people in safeguarding their common cultural heritage and standing by their precious tradition of good virtue and resilience. It is guided by a responsible government which is convinced that no development can be sustainable without a strong culture component, and has consistently demonstrated an unwavering commitment to deliver for the well-being of its citizens. As always, in support of China's efforts in carrying forward the Sustainable Development Goals at the national and global level, UNESCO reaffirms its humanist mission to safeguard and revitalize cultural heritages in China and beyond, and to realize our common vision in building an inclusive and equitable society that leaves no one behind.

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