Workers Use Excavator to Plow Through Great Wall of China

Two workers have been detained in northern China after local authorities said they plowed through a section of the country’s Great Wall with an excavator, leaving a gaping hole.

The pair, a 38-year-old man and 55-year-old-woman, caused “irreversible damage” when they used the construction equipment to widen an existing gap and create a shortcut that was large enough to drive the excavator through it, the Youyu County Public Security Bureau said in a news release last week.

The security bureau said it was first notified of the hole in a section of wall, near the township of Yangqianhe, about 215 miles east of Beijing, on the afternoon of Aug. 24. Law enforcement officers rushed to the scene to find that a piece of the wall, believed to have been constructed during the Ming dynasty between the 14th and 17th centuries, had been severely “excavated and damaged by large-scale machinery,” the bureau said.

The man, named in the release as Zheng, and the woman, named as Wang, are from the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in the country’s north and were taken in for investigation, the bureau added. They have been charged with destroying a cultural relic, The China Daily, a state-owned media outlet, reported.

The Great Wall, which served as a fortress protecting the territory from invasions under successive Chinese empires, spans more than 13,000 miles. The most well-preserved section is around 5,499 miles long. In 1987, the wall was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Great Wall has long faced the dual threats of erosion and human activity, in the form of locals who steal bricks to use as construction materials, and vandalism from tourists.

In 1984, responding to threats to its preservation, President Deng Xiaoping of China launched a campaign to restore the wall, declaring, “Love China, repair the Great Wall.” Subsequent governments have created national legislation to protect the wall and attempted to crack down on vandals. But success has been mixed, and challenges to preserving the wall have mounted.

According to the government’s 2019 plan to protect the Great Wall, 18.4 percent of the structure is considered poorly preserved, 27.1 percent is in danger of disappearing and 24.1 percent has already disappeared.

Part of the challenge of looking after the Great Wall is that it was built over so many dynasties, using various materials and methods. That makes it difficult to define where it starts and ends exactly, said Yujie Zhu, an associate professor at the Australian National University who specializes in heritage studies.

“We don’t have one Great Wall” but instead, a vast, sprawling network of walls and fortifications, he said.

“There’s limited knowledge of what is or what is not part of the wall,” he said, meaning that local residents could be unaware of the significance of what they are taking bricks from, or damaging.

He added that the Western concept of heritage buildings or protecting architecture was introduced relatively recently to China. “So when we see the news of someone coming in and touching or destroying part of the wall, it’s not news,” Mr. Zhu said. “It happens all the time. But it’s become news because in the last 50 years, it’s become heritage.”

China has also battled vandalism from tourists. In 2017, photographs of carvings on the wall in Chinese, English and Korean brought attention to its condition, according to local media. In 2021, two people were banned from the site after they trespassed onto an undeveloped section of the ancient structure. And earlier this year, a man was detained for several days after he carved a name into the wall, local media said.

Siyi Zhao contributed reporting.