New figures show the Ming-era structure in dire straits, while protections remain as paltry as ever

The View from the Top: Great Wall of China
Credit: Rad Danesh

Though the Great Wall of China has long been under threat from weather and human encroachment—a 2012 study found that only 8.2 percent of the wall is in good condition—a recent article from the Beijing Times yields even more alarming figures about its status. Roughly 30 percent of the original structure has disappeared, says the newspaper, citing a recent report from the Great Wall of China Society.

Erosion, earthquakes, and storms continue to threaten poorly preserved sections of the Unesco World Heritage Site, as do trees growing up through cracks in its brickwork. "Many towers are becoming increasingly shaky and may collapse in a single rainstorm in summer," the paper quoted Dong Yaohui, a vice president of the preservation group, as saying.

But China’s rapid development, and the poor rural areas it has left in the dust, are perhaps greater threats. Many of the wall’s millions of yearly visitors pay entrepreneurial locals for access to less traveled sections, despite legislation cracking down on tours of parts not deemed visitor points. Bricks are often looted for reuse or to be sold to tourists for about 30 yuan ($4.83) each, an amount that often outweighs the threat of the scarcely enforced fine for doing so.

Enforcement is an issue on other levels as well. China passed the Great Wall Protection Ordinance in 2006, but without specific rules, effective enforcement, or funding for local governments tasked with enforcing it, the statute doesn’t achieve much. Even documented damage “is hard to solve when it happened on the border of two provinces," said Jia Hailin, a cultural relics protection official, according to the report.

In the meantime, so much of the wall has disappeared that estimates of its total length vary from 5,600 to 13,000 miles, depending on whether missing sections are counted. Of the 3,900 miles completed during the Ming Dynasty, only about 2,700 remain.