KOREA FOCUS
Ulterior Motives behind China's Extension of the Great Wall
Kwon Hee-young

Professor of History
The Academy of Korean Studies


It is feared that China is making political use of UNESCO World Heritage sites, which are designated for all mankind to protect and preserve beyond individual national interests. One example is the Great Wall of China.

 

Emperor Qin Shi Huang built the Great Wall by connecting and extending separate walls feudal lords had built to defend their respective territories against Xiongnu invasions during the Spring and Autumn Period. Afterwards, subsequent Chinese dynasties extended and improved the walls, whenever necessary. But after the Jurchen conquered China and founded the Qing Dynasty, the extension of the Great Wall stopped because Qing became an empire with a vast territory that no longer needed to use the Great Wall for defense purposes.

 

The extension of the Great Wall, which was stopped in the 16th century, has resumed in the 21st century. Since 2004, China has rebuilt Bakjak Fortress of the Goguryeo Kingdom and renamed it "Hushan Great Wall." Then, since 2009, it has claimed that the Goguryeo fortress is part of the Great Wall of China. On June 5, Tong Mingkang, deputy chief of China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said, through the Guangming Ribao daily, that he was sure the total length of the Great Wall amounted to 21,196.18 kilometers. The announcement was the outcome of at least six years of planning and survey and China will continue to preserve the Great Wall, he claimed.

 

Why is China trying to elongate the Great Wall by "rebuilding and improving" it? As written in the newspaper, this is because the "Great Wall is a symbol of the Chinese people as well as China's first World Heritage site." Now we can see China's politics behind the Great Wall: The Great Wall, which was originally built to distinguish the Chinese Han from northern peoples and defend China against Xiongnu invasions, has now become a symbol whereby ethnic minorities in China and the Han Chinese should be united under the banner of Sinocentrism.

 

Furthermore, UNESCO's World Heritage project, which is designed to safeguard the legacies of each nation's contributions to history as heritage of humanity, has become a tool for China to remove differences between ethnic groups and create a new Chinese ethnicity.

 

If China remodels the fortress wall in the style of the Ming Dynasty by erasing traces of Goguryeo and calling the Great Wall a symbol of Chinese ethnicity, then what is the real identity of the Chinese ethnicity as claimed by China? What meaning does the World Heritage carry for China, if it tries to erase all of the cultural traces of each nation in northern regions and absorb them as part of the Han Chinese people's heritage?

 

We are well aware what negative effects China's politically-charged history program, dubbed the "Northeast Project," has had on the Seoul-Beijing relations. At a time when our memory of this is still vivid, it is never desirable for China to practice narrow-minded politics under the pretext of a World Heritage site whereby it should pursue common human values. This is undesirable not only for bilateral relations, but for China's own international status as one of the G2 members alongside the United States.

 

China has abundant cultural assets. And we know that the Chinese people have achieved such cultural richness through exchanges with other nations over a long period of time. China should fully realize that the genuine value it should pursue is not politics of uniformity based on the Chinese ethnicity, but politics based on multicultural diversity that embraces characteristics of each ethnic minority. Then it can boost its national prestige as a country with refined culture, instead of giving the impression that it is arrogant and rude.

 

The Korean government should be aware that the "politics behind the extended Great Wall" is never simply an internal affair of China. It is necessary to respond determinedly to this by finding out whether China has any ulterior motives to exercise influence on the Korean peninsula by incorporating even the history of Goguryeo into Chinese history.

[Munhwa Ilbo, June 13, 2012]