International scholars on Tibetan studies have launched a petition to China and UNESCO expressing “grave concern over the rapidly-progressing destruction of much of the traditional architectural heritage of the Old City of Lhasa and its environs.”
The petition, addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bukova, urges them to send “independent investigative teams” to Lhasa and to see “whether local officials and business interests have violated the responsibilities incumbent upon China through its participation in UNESCO.”
The scholars say, “This is not just a Tibetan problem; it is not just a Chinese problem. It is an international problem.”
In a specific request to UNESCO, the petition says, “Most importantly we ask that UNESCO provide a clear-cut plan outlining what needs to be done immediately to preserve the Old City of Lhasa, to halt the current destruction, and to prevent Lhasa from being turned into an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture.”
Following is the full text of the petition. (View petition »)
Tibetan Scholars’ Appeal to Halt the Destruction of Old Lhasa
President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China
Mme. Irina Bukova, Director-General of UNESCO
We, the undersigned, independent and institutionally-affiliated specialists in various fields of Tibetan Studies, respectfully submit this petition to you out of grave concern over the rapidly-progressing destruction of much of the traditional architectural heritage of the Old City of Lhasa and its environs. This destruction is not simply a question of aesthetics:
- It has been and is destroying irreplaceable structures that in some cases have stood for centuries, creating what appears to be a contrived tourist village and making the organic Tibetan presence and way of life in the Old City a thing of the past.
- It is depriving Tibetans and scholars of Tibet alike of a living connection to the Tibetan past.
- It is causing injury to aspects of the cultural and religious practices of Tibetans from various walks of life.
- Combined with the regulations that effectively restrict travel and pilgrimage to Lhasa, it has begun to alter the role that Lhasa has played in Tibetan life for more than a millennium.
- It is bringing in its wake the forced displacement of large numbers of Tibetans from their own homes, effectively diminishing the Tibetan presence in one of the most important Tibetan cultural sites.
- It is wreaking ecological harm as the Kyichu (Lhasa) River dries up, as unrestrained mining and industrial operations in the region pollute it, and as ongoing construction depletes groundwater in Lhasa.
Modernization and preservation need not be mutually exclusive. There are culturally sensitive ways to modernize ancient city quarters and preserve traditional buildings. But what is happening in the Old City of Lhasa appears first and foremost to have been undertaken with commercial rather than cultural goals in mind.
This is not just a Tibetan problem; it is not just a Chinese problem. It is an international problem.
China has recognized the essential underlying international nature of the matter in its support for UNESCO’s work in designating the Potala Palace (including the Jokhang and Norbulingka areas) a world heritage site. At the 28th session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, held in Suzhou, China, in 2004 several decisions concerning Lhasa were adopted. Those decisions made specific mention of the need to protect the Old City of Lhasa and asked that the Old City Barkor area be included within the protective definition pertaining to the Jokhang:
- The conservation challenges and potentials in Lhasa would benefit from a management and development agency to coordinate activities in Old Lhasa, which could be responsible for the management of Old Lhasa and the World Heritage properties…
- … Conservation and rehabilitation of historic traditional buildings: Except in exceptional circumstances, demolition should be stopped, particularly in the Shöl area. Any necessary replacement buildings should be in keeping with the historic character of the area…
- …It is recommended that the management authorities evaluate and redefine the current World Heritage protective boundaries and management guidelines pertaining to the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple (including the Barkor Historic Area) and Nobulingka, taking into consideration the heritage values of the surrounding landscape and environment…
- … [T]he heritage management authorities are encouraged to develop training activities and provide guidance on sustainable
tourism planning at the World Heritage properties in Lhasa…
Given the dire circumstances:
- We request that independent investigative teams from both China and from UNESCO be dispatched to Lhasa as soon as possible.
- We ask that the teams report in detail on the situation; on whether local officials and business interests have violated the responsibilities incumbent upon China through its participation in UNESCO.
- Most importantly we ask that UNESCO provide a clear-cut plan outlining what needs to be done immediately to preserve the Old City of Lhasa, to halt the current destruction, and to prevent Lhasa from being turned into an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture.
- Finally, we ask all who sign this petition to forward it, along with their concerns, to the UNESCO delegates in their own countries, requesting that they make the issue of preserving the Old City of Lhasa a priority for the organization.
Further details about the situation in the Old City of Lhasa can be found at: