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Heritage Diplomacy

The cultural policies of transregional infrastructure projects in Asia

Published onMar 16, 2022
Heritage Diplomacy

Concerned appeals and diagnoses of increasing social polarisation have made it clear, especially during the Corona pandemic: social and cultural cohesion continue to be linked primarily to notions of a nationally or territorially defined community. Art, media, and cultural policy in general, are discussed as areas through which the supposedly ‘crumbling cement’ or ‘glue’ can be renewed and strengthened on the basis of shared ideas of solidarity, connectedness and values.1 However, this inevitably raises the question of boundaries and exclusivity of community concepts as well as the cultural and historical narratives that promote - or counteract - them.

As Aurel Croissant and Peter Walkenhorst explain in the introduction to their co-edited volume on “Social Cohesion in Asia”,

“social cohesion as measured in the Bertelsmann Asian Radar is mostly a matter of how individuals perceive others and the state and not of more ‘objective’ measures of interactions, although these perceptions are likely to affect the outcome of actual interactions and one would expect a correlation between the two [Croissant/Walkenhorst 2021].”

The results of the country studies untertaken for the Asian Radar allow the two editors of the book to question the currently prevailing understanding of social and cultural cohesion as a basis for stable democracies - or at least as interdependent with democracy. Instead, Croissant and Walkenhorst draw our attention to the “Janus-faced quality” or combination of cohesion with so-called “Asian values”, i.e. a “unique system of communal, authoritarian and familial values (ibid.:16):

“(S)ocial cohesion can have a negative effect or work differently in nondemocratic contexts. For example, the literature on bridging social capital highlights that strong bonds and cohesion within a group can lend itself to authoritarian structures and exploitation of power (ibid.)”.2

In the German context, knowledge resources, ‘measurements’ of social cohesion and comparative country surveys provided by the Bertelsmann Foundation are a central reference point for the public discussion and perception of cohesion. The Foundation defines social cohesion as: “(…) the quality of social cooperation and togetherness in a territorially delimited community that is expressed in the attitudes and behaviors of its members. A cohesive society is characterized by resilient social relationships, a positive emotional connectedness between its members and the community, and a pronounced focus on the common good.

However, the assumed sedentism that is being reproduced through a focus and even stress on territorial boundedness and delimitation in social cohesion measurement ignores the impact of (multiple forms of) mobility on preexisting ideas, imaginations and practices of living together, which are not necessarily tied to a permanent physical co-presence in one place or country. For instance, as a consequence of increased rural-to-urban as well as transnational migration, an increasing number of families of Asian backgrounds have developed new practices of ‘doing family multilocally’, especially through their digitally mediated ‘family rituals’, communication or ‘always on’ form of ambient co-presence [Madianou 2016]. Although the reality of (voluntary or forced) contemporary mobilities across and beyond Asia often stands in sharp contrast to the normativity - or ‘optimism’ - of mobility which is prevalent in the respective policies as well as in innumereable advertising messages, it can hardly be overlooked that the mobility paradigm has a shaping influence on how connectedness and a sense of belonging are imagined and experienced [Schneider 2015].

The following paragraphs are based on the assumption that the particular nexus of cultural heritage, (tourist) mobility and society is not only of growing economic importance but also an area where new approaches to shared ideas of solidarity, connectedness and common values are tested across Asia - beyond the framework of nation or territory.

“We are also seeing major growth in the scale and scope of international cooperation between countries across Asia regarding the preservation of the past. Heritage conservation is fast emerging as an important component of the intra-regional economic and political ties that are binding states and populations in the region.” Tim Winter (2016). Heritage Diplomacy Along the One Belt, One Road”. The Newsletter 74.

Beyond nationally or territorially oriented approaches to social and cultural cohesion, it is therefore interesting to look into emerging forms and key actors of cultural and heritage policies in Asia. Individual states may continue to pursue national interests, but at the same time, these contemporary cultural and heritage policies are also increasingly transregional. Here, art, media, and culture in general are seen as central to fostering a notion of long-standing transcultural connections and intertwined histories, which can provide a stable foundation for a new sense of transregional cultural belonging. Narratives of a shared heritage, which pre-dates colonialism or the modern nation-state, are of central importance in this context. Instead of a clearly demarcated ‘national culture’ or ‘national art’, ideas of transregionally shared heritage, cultural proximity and deep mutual appreciation are now increasingly moved to the fore. In connection to this, “people-to-people bonding” is a key concept introduced by the Chinese government in the context of its large-scale Belt and Road Initiative (launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping) infrastructure project; the concept has also been taken up by competing initiatives within Asia, notably in the framework of India's Act East Campaign [see Teipelke 2021].

As Tim Winter points out, China is surely not the only country in Asia that is integrating cultural and heritage diplomacy into its bi- and multi-lateral programs of cooperation and aid, but it has taken this strategy to a whole new level. He makes two very interesting distinctions: on the one hand, he distinguishes between cultural diplomacy and heritage diplomacy. On the other hand, Winter differentiates between heritage in diplomacy and heritage as diplomacy (see below). He argues that heritage diplomacy is more expansive as it not only incorporates the export or projection of a particular cultural form but also brings the bi- and multi-directional cultural flows and exchanges into the focus. In more and more cases, heritage, as a non-human actor, becomes activated diplomatically because it speaks to notions of shared culture or even one culture [Winter 2015:1007].

Shared Cultural Heritage: Changing Approaches and Ongoing Debates

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was passed on May 14, 1954, against the background of the Second World War. The convention covers all movable and immovable cultural assets that are of great importance for the cultural heritage of all peoples. The central guiding principle is emphasized in the preamble:

(...) any damage to cultural property, regardless of which people it belongs to, means damage to the cultural heritage of the whole of humanity, because every people makes its contribution to the culture of the world”.

When former US president Donald Trump threatened to destroy several world heritage sites in Iran, in one of his most controversial tweets in January 2020, probably the biggest cause of outrage was that he seemed to have adopted the same strategy that had been increasingly used by extremist actors in recent decades.3 Notably, in connection with the destruction of the largest standing Buddha statues in the world in the valley of Bamiyan in March 2001 by the Taliban or, more recently, in the context of the destruction and looting of cultural objects in Iraq and Syria by the so-called Islamic State. In order to point out the dramatic extent of this violence directed against cultural assets, and its often close connection to various forms of genocidal violence, the former Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, took up the term “cultural cleansing”.

As paradoxical as it may sound to many, however, observers saw this targeted violence against material cultural heritage as a confirmation of the global symbolic charging and successful implementation of the idea that cultural heritage is both a central resource for the formation of identities for groups and communities as well as an important symbol for the peaceful coexistence and mutual recognition of different cultures and religious beliefs.

While the concept of universal or shared cultural heritage is no longer just related to material heritage, that is, primarily to protected memorials and monuments, material objects are still very often the focus of discussions. In this context, it is also helpful to remember how the ongoing global process of ‘heritagization’ was prompted in second half of the 20th century by a growing concern about the potential damage to cultural heritage which arose from ‘modern civilization’. Accordingly, it was the perceived threat to outstanding monuments from major technical projects that formed another important starting point for international and global diplomatic efforts to protect and preserve the world's cultural heritage.4 The UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted in Paris in 1972, can be seen as the result of this important historical phase.5

Particularly since the 1980s, critical debates about the dominant concept of cultural world heritage have intensified, as it was often perceived as elitist, Eurocentric and far too limited. Besides the strong focus on the conservation of memorials and monuments, the overall view based on so-called ‘high culture’ was criticized. Critics argued that universal cultural heritage should not only be seen and preserved in urban centers but also in rural regions. Another important point of debate was the separate consideration of cultural assets as cultural heritage on the one hand, and of natural landscapes as natural heritage on the other. Both categories continue to this day in the systematization of world heritage sites by UNESCO.6 However, the most far-reaching expansion of the World Heritage concept came from the recognition of so-called intangible cultural heritage.

The Nara Conference on Authenticity, which took place in Japan in 1994, is seen as a decisive turning point in the decentralization and expansion of the world cultural heritage concept. Fourty-five experts from twenty-five countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe took part. However, looking at the list of participating countries at the time, it immediately stands out how strongly underrepresented the African continent was, with only two participating countries - Kenya and Egypt. Experts from Asia came from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand [see Jokilehto 2013]. In spite of that, the Nara Conference provided very important impulses from a critical postcolonial perspective.7 Jukka Jokilehto argues that the conference actually set the course towards a more balanced and broader understanding of world cultural heritage, which now considers cultural diversity as an irreplaceable basis for the spiritual and intellectual wealth of humanity (ibid.) Following the example of Australia, new cultural places have been included in the UNESCO lists, which did not acquire their outstanding importance as places where monuments are located but rather because of the cultural practices associated with them that were, or are still being, practiced there over longer periods of time.

With more and more monuments, ensembles and sites, natural structures, geological manifestations, festivals and customs, handed-down knowledge, skills and traditions, to which the award of the world heritage title is accorded, the world heritage lists are getting longer and longer. However, the majority of them are still located in Europe where they are closely linked to cultural tourism and the so-called cultural industries.

Restitution of African Cultural Property

The highly critical debate about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin as well as the examination of restitution claims and provenance research have, once again, brought the asymmetries between previously colonized and colonizing societies into focus [Sarr and Savoy 2019]. On the one hand, it has been argued in this context that the question of ownership of cultural heritage should be separated from the idea that cultural assets necessarily have a fixed place. Heritage should rather be seen as universal, potentially mobile, and shared by all people. On the other hand, the question of inequality, exclusion from access to these cultural assets, and of a permanent loss of knowledge infrastructures in postcolonial societies and persecuted groups, from which many cultural assets have been stolen and looted, holds particular urgency. Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy were commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron to investigate the conditions under which African cultural assets could be returned to their countries of origin. This was preceded by a speech Macron had given in November 2017 at the University of Ouagadougou. As Macron had announced in this speech, he wanted to create the conditions for African cultural heritage to return to Africa, temporarily or permanently, as it could no longer be accepted that a large part of the African cultural heritage was kept in French museums or private collections. Macron argued that this stood in the way of building new friendships and a shared imagination and could therefore no longer be postponed.

The fact that the president of France used the word “shared” several times in the longer excerpt from the speech below and linked it to the idea of a “temporary or permanent return” of African heritage to Africa underlines that he had perfectly understood the political potential - or perhaps even unavoidability - of heritage diplomacy:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to finish by talking about how, together, we can place these new relations of friendship on a long-term footing, over and above threats, fears and our shared interests. Today we have, in a way, lost our shared imagination. We suffer from an imagination that confines us to our conflicts, sometimes to our traumas, an imagination that is no longer either your or ours; and I want to rebuild this shared and future imagination on the basis of three remedies.

The first remedy is culture. In this area, I cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France. There are historical explanations for it, but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification. African heritage cannot solely exist in private collections and European museums. African heritage must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou; this will be one of my priorities. Within five years I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa.

This will also mean major work and a scientific and museum partnership, because – make no mistake – in many African countries it is sometimes African curators who have organized trafficking, and it is sometimes European curators or collectors who have saved those African artworks for Africa by protecting them from African traffickers. Our mutual history is sometimes more complex than we may instinctively think!

The best tribute I can pay, not only to those artists but also to those Africans and Europeans who fought to safeguard those works, is to do everything possible to bring them back. It is also to do everything possible to ensure that there is security and that care is taken in Africa to protect those works. So these partnerships will also take every precaution to ensure that there are well-trained curators, academic commitments and government-to-government commitments to protect those works of art – in other words, your history, your heritage and, if you will allow me to say so, our heritage."

“A New Museum to Bring the Benin Bronzes Home.

The architect David Adjaye discusses his plans for an institution to house the looted treasures on their to return to Nigeria.”

New York Times, Nov 13, 2020

“The museum ‘will house some 300 items on loan (sic!) from European museums - if the money to build it can be raised”’.

The image shows a computer-generated impression of the main entrance and courtyard of the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria (copyright: Adjaye Associates).

See also “Germany is returning Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes: why it’s not nearly enough” (

Heritage Diplomacy in the Framework of the Belt and Road Initiative

As Winter (2015) explains, heritage diplomacy extends beyond the use of culture as a tool for international public and political relations; it can be understood as an arena of governance, one that crosses borders, and becomes politicised as it straddles sectors as diverse as architectural conservation, social development and post-disaster reconstruction. In this regard, he argues,

“heritage diplomacy can broadly be defined as a set of processes whereby cultural and natural pasts shared between and across nations become subject to exchanges, collaborations and forms of cooperative governance. Crucially, recognition of heritage as a form of spatial and social governance also means it incorporates forms of hard power too. This is most tangibly seen when heritage is part of bigger developmental aid packages and associated structures of international aid (Winter 2015:1007)”.

But, as Winter continues, this needs to be unpacked further, as there are different ways heritage acts or is being used in or as diplomacy.

Heritage in diplomacy often revolves around conservation aid, whereby one country exports assistance to another. In addition to actual conservation work, assistance can also include technology transfer, the training of professionals and institute building – both of which are commonly referred to as capacity building – or in the case of physical heritage sites, the development of management plans and upgrading of infrastructures related to urban planning or tourism development. In such cases, Winter (2015) argues, heritage diplomacy is not dependent upon the notion of mutual or shared culture as a mediator of relations.

As we can clearly see in Macron’s speech above, the president of France draws precisely on the idea of an ethos of ‘saving culture through conservation’ as part of a sense of civic nationalism for the donor country; of ‘responsible care of national culture, both at home and abroad’ (Winter 2015:1008). However, the same idea of ‘responsible custodianship’ was of course used as a legitimization for the removal of artefacts for museum collections in Europe, together with in situ archaeology and architectural preservation.

Heritage as diplomacy, on the other hand, highlights the historical connections of region, religion, and trade, as well as narratives of a shared heritage that pre-dates colonialism or the modern nation-state. Material pasts are being put to work in the formation of new imagined communities and future cooperation in regions with deep histories of cultural exchange and multidirectional flows (Winter 2015:1009). 

With its transregional Belt and Road Initiative, China very effectively uses the world heritage framework, and so do other countries in Asia. At the same time, these examples show that despite their distinct features, neither are cultural diplomacy and heritage diplomacy mutually exclusive nor are heritage in or as diplomacy. As Winter argues, it is important to read critically when and why such a distinction is deliberately collapsed.

“Numerous world heritage sites across Asia have become honeypots of development in the past twenty years, and provided the logic for the construction of airports, roads, hotel zones and various forms of urban redevelopment. Increasingly tied to infrastructure, urban planning, tourism, post-disaster reconstruction and conflict transformation, heritage has thus emerged as an important form of spatial and social governance.”

On the one hand, with the establishment of numerous Confucius Institutes along the new network flows, China is pursuing a cultural and heritage diplomacy strategy. The intention is unmistakably to establish the country as a central national actor in the context of the Old and New Silk Road, and thereby increase international recognition of China’s civilizational contribution to ‘world history’. On the other hand, an attempt is also being made here to convey a cooperative approach, or ‘participatory co-creation of possibilities’, of a transregional and shared historical narrative. The Silk Road project is designed as a space in which the desired goal of people-to-people bonding is to be realised, especially through cross-border tourist mobility along the declared ‘world heritage sites’. Museum cities, expo parks and exhibition pavilions displaying art, handicrafts and archaeological artefacts from more than twenty ‘Silk Road countries’ - all these emerging places and spaces along the network flows are of central importance for the intra- and transregional heritage tourism strategy, the starting point of which is Xi'an in northwest China:

„As a transboundary cultural landscape, the Silk Road will become a network of corridors and hubs of tourism development, oriented in large part around the branding of world heritage. As low and middle income countries in South and Southeast Asia have demonstrated in recent decades, international tourism has become a significant factor in GDP growth” [see also Hitchcock, King and Parnwell 2010].

Principle Economic Corridors of One Belt One Road. Tim Winter (2016). Heritage Diplomacy along the One Belt, One Road. The Newsletter 74 Summer 2016.

Perhaps not surprisingly, new connectivities and emerging transregional spaces, which are supposed to be promoted by the network architecture and large-scale infrastructure projects, can at the same time produce new limitations of local habitats, disconnectivities, and even new immobilities. For instance, if poor population groups are displaced and permanently ‘cut off’ from the new forms of mobility; when natural resources are over-exploited or local heritage sites that do not easily fit into the great Silk Road narrative are in danger of disappearing from view or being destroyed. This can be exemplified by the construction of the first metro line in Pakistan, the Orange Line in Lahore (Punjab), which was realised within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. The prestigious infrastructure project is mediated by the two governments as a central symbol of the new Chinese-Pakistani friendship and accompanied by great hopes regarding mobility, connectivity, and economic development of the Lahore metropolitan region.

“Why the Orange Line Metro Train in Lahore is highly controversial”. Sher Ali Khan (2018), Herald, April 23.

“A residential block near Jain Mandar in Lahore being demolished for Orange Line construction in 2016 | Azhar Jafferi, White Star”

Similar to other metro construction projects in South Asia, however, the construction of the Orange Line has permanently displaced many people and destroyed houses, including numerous old buildings. Opposition and protest - not directed against the ‘metro-mobility’ project itself but against the way it was implemented - were particularly ignited by the threat it posed to local heritage sites and historical buildings. In this local context, artists and activists from Pakistan critically reflect and comment on what is currently being (re)configured, reconnected, or possibly disconnected and marginalised by the practices of the New Silk Road or Belt and Road Initiative.8


“Mother China: A ‘Chinese revolution’ sweeps across Pakistan”. Illustration by Sana Nasir. The original illustration for Herald Magazine can be found at Nasir’s illustration features former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the arms of China’s President Xi Jinping, “illustrated in the Chinese propaganda poster style of the 60’s”.


I would like to thank my colleagues Alexa Altmann and Julia Strutz for their critical comments and feedback on draft versions of this article.


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