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Leveraging Heritage – China’s Role Within and Across the World; By Archana Jayaraman

C3S Article no: 0002/2017

There has been a lot of discussion about China’s ‘Soft Power Push’[1]. From culture, political values, innovation to education, China has been seen as reshaping its image to emerge as a power center in the region and steadily crawling outwards at the same time. Culture, specifically, has seen a major boost under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. At a session for the members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee in 2014, he stressed on the need to promote advanced socialist culture, enhance people’s cultural creativity and push forward the cultural industry[2]. This is being achieved by a slew of initiatives like the Belt and Road initiative, creation of institutes to specifically teach its language and culture, among others. What is more interesting is the amount of investment backing up these initiatives including the $40 Billion for the Silk Road Economic belt, $25 Billion for the Maritime Silk Road and a worldwide investment pledge of $1.25 trillion by 2025[3].

In this context, China’s partnership with UNESCO is interesting to look at.Being the cultural and scientific arm of the United Nations, a fruitful partnership with UNESCO would ideally contribute to the Chinese agenda of expanding its sphere of influence in culture and education. This does seem to be the case in reality as well. 2014 marked 30 years of UNESCO in China[4] and over these years, the two have worked in close coordination on issues ranging from South-South cooperation with focus on Africa, to education for all. In fact, 2014 marked the first instance when a Chinese President addressed[5] UNESCO and for the first time ever, the presidency of the UNESCO General Conference, which determines the policies and the main lines of work of the organization, was held by China from November 2013 to November 2015[6].

One particular area which stands out in this relationship is how China has conserved and highlighted its natural and cultural heritage under the World Heritage Convention. China has 50 world heritage sites, 11 natural, 35 cultural, 4 mixed[7]. This number makes it the second largest in terms of the number of UNESCO designated areas. President Xi Jinping, in his speech at UNESCO in 2014, expressed his gratitude to UNESCO for including many proud Chinese achievements in the World Cultural Heritage list, World Intangible Cultural Heritage list and the Memory of the World list[8].

World Heritage has also been a controversial issue, with China’s request to mark the Nanjing massacre documents in the Memory of the World list being accepted by UNESCO and the resulting fallout with Japan. The “Documents of Nanjing Massacre” submission consisted of court documents from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that convicted several Japanese as war criminals and a Chinese military tribunal, among others. They also included photos of the killings said to have been taken by the Imperial Japanese Army and film footage taken by an American missionary.[9]

As a result of this decision, Japan withheld its 2016 funding for the UNESCO heritage body, after raising questions about the authenticity of the Nanjing Massacre documents submitted by Chinese organisations. Japan had been due to contribute about 3.85 billion yen (US$37 million) to UNESCO in 2016, or about 9.7 percent of its total budget[10]. Interestingly, if one has a look at the Statement of Compulsory Contributions of the World Heritage Fund, as of 30th September 2016, China appears to be one of the highest contributors[11]. This is significant both for UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre, considering the world body has been facing a shortage of funds ever since US withdrew its funding support after Palestine was included as a member country of UNESCO.[12]

China has also been providing support for the safeguarding and sustainable development of World Heritage sites in the region. One such example has been in the case of the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia. China, along with India, is the Co-Chair of the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Preah Vihear (ICC-Preah Vihear). It has also pledged to undertake renovation work at 3 temples within the site. This comes on the heels of its engagement with the Cambodian Government on the Angkor Site, another famous and important World Heritage site in Cambodia.

Most of these partnerships have been formed as a result of greater collaborations that China has been undertaking. One such mechanism aiding these partnerships have been the Category 2 centres established under the auspices of UNESCO. Category 2 centres are associated with UNESCO through agreements which have been formally approved by the General Conference, after they have been proposed by a member state and selected based on their specialization strength in one of UNESCO’s fields of competence.[13] In the area of World Heritage, China has 2 Category 2 centres and 13 overall, which is a sizable number. Through these centres, China engages with UNESCO and with other regional powers by providing its expertise and experience to contribute to the implementation of UNESCO’s strategic objectives.

The push for ‘soft power’ is real and is happening fervently and efficiently in China. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the country rises further and establishes its cultural dominance and significance on the global stage and in its partnership with UNESCO. As to how it manages to offset possible challenges and navigate its way through this process remains to be seen.


[1] Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “The Rise of China’s Soft Power.” Wall Street Journal Asia, December 29, 2005.

[2]“China to promote cultural soft power”, China Daily ,January 1, 2014 (Accessed on December 24, 2016)

[3]Shambaugh, David. “China’s Soft-Power Push”. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2015,

[4]Zhao, Xinying. “UNESCO’s achievements in China hailed”, China Daily, 27 March,2014, (Accessed on January 1, 2017)

[5]Speech by H.E. Xi Jinping President of the People’s Republic of China At UNESCO Headquarters. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, (Accessed on January 2, 2017)

[6] Ibid 2

[7]World Heritage Centre.United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. (Accessed on November 24, 2016)

[8] Ibid 5

[9]“Japan hits out as UNESCO archives ‘Nanjing Massacre’ documents”, Japan Times, October 10, 2015, (Accessed on December 1, 2016)

[10]“Japan withholds UNESCO funding after Nanjing Massacre row”, Channel NewsAsia, October 14,2016, (Accessed on December 2, 2016)

[11]World Heritage Fund. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation ,

[12]“US pulls Unesco funding after Palestine is granted full membership”, The Guardian, 31 October, 2011, (Accessed on November 24, 2016)

[13]Institutes and Centres (category 2), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation,

(The Author is a Programme Specialist at the International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage, a Category 2 Centre under the auspices of UNESCO, located in Beijing, China.)

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