China’s demolition of traditional neighborhoods in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in the volatile Xinjiang region is eroding ethnic Uyghur culture, an overseas rights group said Monday.
The demolition is part of plans by the Chinese authorities to relocate over a million Uyghur homes throughout the northwestern Xinjiang region, which has been gripped for years by persistent ethnic tensions between the Muslim Uyghurs and the rapidly growing Han Chinese migrant population.
The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said in a report that development projects resettling Uyghurs in Kashgar and other cities are destroying Uyghur culture and are aimed at assimilating ethnic Uyghurs into Chinese society.
“The demolitions carried out by the Chinese government represent a loss of Uyghur culture and heritage, and the disappearance of living Uyghur communities,” said UHRP director Alim Seytoff.
“They also represent a loss to world culture and heritage. Once demolished, these unique communities are lost to the world forever,” he said.
The most extensive demolitions have occurred in Xinjiang’s southwestern city of Kashgar—once considered “one of the best-preserved traditional Islamic cities in the world,” according to UHRP—where plans to rebuild 85 percent of the traditional Old City have been under way since February 2009.
Uyghur residents of the city have been forced to move from traditional mud-brick homes communally arranged along narrow alleyways to modern high-rise apartment complexes.
Across the region, 1.5 million houses would be rebuilt or “transformed” in the Xinjiang region by 2015, regional authorities said in March, with 300,000 homes rebuilt each year from 2011.
So far, in addition to Kashgar, Uyghurs communities subject to major reconstruction plans since 2010 include other parts of Kashgar prefecture, the Tashbulaq (in Chinese, Heijiashan) district of Urumqi, Turpan (Tulufan), Hotan (Hetian), Ghulja (Yining), Kumul (Hami), Aksu (Akesu), Korla (Kuerla), Karamay (Kelamayi), and Bortala, UHRP said.
These projects “have raised concerns about resettlement of residents, equitable distribution of resources, and cultural preservation,”as the majority of residents displaced have been Uyghurs, UHRP said.
As centrally directed projects, the demolitions amount to “the comprehensive assimilation of Uyghur people into the fabric of broader Chinese society and culture,” the report said.
It recommended that Chinese authorities stop the demolitions in all the neighborhoods across the region “until a transparent process of genuine consultation has been undertaken with residents.”
UHRP said that in Kashgar, Chinese authorities have not consulted those affected in the resettlement project which is aimed at moving 220,000 Uyghur residents, or approximately half of Kashgar’s population.
“While China’s official press has asserted that Old City residents were consulted regarding the resettlement of residents from the Old City, no evidence of any consultative process has been provided, and all independent indications point to the lack of a Uyghur voice throughout the planning process,” the report said.
Authorities have cited earthquake safety, poor drainage, and other public safety issues as motivations for the demolition.
But Uyghur residents have not had a chance to say how they would address these problems, UHRP said, calling the demolitions a “failure on the part of Chinese authorities to engage in meaningful consultation with Uyghurs regarding how they wish to transform their own communities.”
According to one estimate made by a photographer using satellite images, two thirds of the old Old City—which originally contained over eight square kilometers (three square miles) of traditional Uyghur homes, bazaars and centers of worship—had been demolished by November 2011.
In the portions of the Old City that remain for cultural preservation, a Beijing-based company has established a near-monopoly on tourism, UHRP said.
Kashgar has not been included in China’s list of Silk Road World Heritage sites submitted to UNESCO, but the U.N. body has urged Chinese officials to prepare a conservation management plan for the city of Kashgar.
“The destruction of Uyghur neighborhoods has resulted in the loss of both physical structures, including Uyghur homes, shops and religious sites, and patterns of traditional Uyghur life that cannot be replicated in the new, heavily-monitored apartment blocks where many have been forcibly relocated,” UHRP said.
Uyghurs remain a majority in Kashgar, which has traditionally been a cultural center for the nine-million strong, Turkic-speaking ethnic group.
Some fear that with the deepening of economic links in the region to the rest of China, cities like Kashgar could become more like Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, where Han Chinese residents went from 20 percent of the city’s population in 1949 to over 75 percent in 2000, according to the national census.
Last year, China announced plans to make Kashgar the “Shenzhen of the West,” building a special economic zone like the one in southern China that launched the country’s economic transformation.
“Cities such as Urumchi represent the future for cities in the south of the region, such as Kashgar,” UHRP said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.