Taroko Gorge is one of the wonders of the natural world and Taiwanese are justly proud and protective of it. The establishment of the Toroko National Park in 1986 was a major step forward in the preservation of the park’s beauty and resources.
The Ministry of Culture, and doubtless many others in Taiwan, would like to see the park included among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, along with other sites. However, it appears too willing to sell out the nation’s sovereignty if that is what it takes to get places in Taiwan on the list.
Since the establishment of the World Heritage Sites list, following UNESCO’s adoption of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972, the list has grown to include 981 sites.
The catch-22 is that a country has to be a signatory to the convention in order to nominate sites for the list, and only UN member states are eligible to sign the treaty. The Republic of China is no longer a member of the UN. However, the People’s Republic of China signed the convention in December 1975 and now has more than 40 sites on the heritage list.
Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) on Thursday said the ministry was interested in working with China to nominate places in Taiwan and had asked if the idea could be discussed during cross-strait talks. She said cultural heritage supersedes ideological differences and is distinct from politics.
“We hope to collaborate with Beijing on the basis of mutual respect and spirit of cooperation,” she said, adding that Taiwanese sites would “absolutely not” be listed under the Chinese government.
Leaving aside the issue of whether Beijing has ever shown “mutual respect” to Taiwan, it is clear that Lung needs to take a course in politics and history.
Beijing has long appropriated icons that do not belong to it to press its sovereignty claims. In late 2003 there was an uproar in Taiwan after the People’s Bank of China issued “The Chinese Island of Taiwan” set of collectable coins, which featured Chaotien Temple in Yunlin County and Chihkan Tower (Fort Provintia) in what is now Greater Tainan. Tainan’s cultural affairs department labeled the coins “an act of cultural appropriation.”
Looking at the list of sites in China on the heritage list, one cannot help but be struck by the cruel irony of the descriptions of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, which was added in 1994 for being an “exceptional symbol of the integration of secular and religious authority.” The Potala “inscription” was later expanded to include the Jokhang Temple Monastery and the Dalai Lamas’ summer palace, Norbulingka.
The description of the Potala Palace says that it “symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet.” As for Norbulingka, there is a note that “since the departure of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959,” the palace has been managed by the Cultural Management Committee and Bureau of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
“Departure” is such a benign word, as opposed to “fled for his life.” And while Beijing is happy to promote the Potala Palace to prove its ownership of Tibet, for decades it has done everything it can to destroy Tibetan Buddhism and take the “Tibet” out of Tibetans. Perhaps the cadres in Beijing forgot to tell UNESCO that the Jokhang is frequently closed to Tibetans and others who would like to worship there.
Beijing has repeatedly proven itself unhelpful when it comes to interactions between Taiwan and world organizations, including demanding that information during the SARS epidemic be routed through it to pass on to Taipei.
Seeking Beijing’s “help” to get Taroko on the World Heritage Sites list to preserve it would do little to help preserve Taiwan’s sovereignty or identity on the world stage. For the rulers in Beijing, nothing supersedes ideology and nothing is distinct from politics. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.