From Kashgar to Kashi (喀什): The Chinese Remaking of Kashgar

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April 17, 2012

Amy Reger, Researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP)

The ancient Silk Road oasis of Kashgar, where Uyghurs have played host to a vibrant Central Asian trading culture, is getting a makeover. Uyghurs view Kashgar as the spiritual and cultural heart of their culture, and the cradle of Uyghur civilization. However, reminiscent of the demolition of traditional Tibetan buildings in the city of Lhasa that were carried out around a decade ago, Kashgar’s Old City has been demolished piece-by-piece since early 2009. As the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) wrote in a recent report, Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities, the majority of the Old City has now been demolished, together with traditional Uyghur communities throughout East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China).1Demolitions have also been carried out in Kashgar Prefecture, the Tashbulaq (Chinese: Heijiashan) District of Urumchi, Turpan, Hotan, Ghulja, Kumul, Aksu, Korla, and Uyghur neighborhoods in Karamay, and Bortala.

At the same time as hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are being pushed out of traditional buildings to the outskirts of Kashgar, Chinese state policies are bringing Han Chinese investment and construction into Kashgar at an unprecedented pace. The city’s newest residents refer to it by the Chinese name of Kashi, instead of its Uyghur name of Kashgar.

Beijing officials mandated the creation of a special economic trading area in Kashgar in 2010, in the hopes of linking the city at the edge of Chinese control more closely with Han political, economic and cultural spheres. The policy brought the advent of a new, non-direct flight from Beijing (and more recently from Hong Kong), together with construction projects subsidized with billions of yuan from the central government. A new frenzy to develop Kashgar in the model of Shenzhen, China’s first “Special Economic Zone,” was represented in a banner hung underneath Kashgar’s towering statue of Mao Zedong, reading “Learn from Shenzhen, Pay Tribute to Shenzhen.”

Indeed, at a special Xinjiang Work Forum held in Beijing in May 2010 (at which not a single ethnic Uyghur was allowed to attend), the central leadership matched Shenzhen with Kashgar as part of a “counterpart support” program matching 19 provinces and municipalities with localities in East Turkestan. Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, Shanghai, and Shandong Province have invested an estimated total of 1.14 billion yuan (approximately 181 million USD) in demolition and reconstruction projects throughout Kashgar Prefecture, where Kashgar is located. Termed “anju fumin”, or “peaceful resident, prosperous citizen,” projects, these campaigns have raised concerns about resettlement of residents, equitable distribution of resources and cultural preservation. The vast majority of residents who have displaced have been Uyghurs.

After the creation of the special economic trading area in Kashgar, real estate prices in the city skyrocketed, as investors from places such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, Jiangxi scrambled to secure their own piece of a state-led economic boom. At the European View Gardens apartment complex, one of a spate of new residential complexes that has sprung up alongside demolitions and investment in Kashgar, a New York Times reporter asked a Chinese salesman why there were no Uyghur-language promotional materials. The salesman responded by saying, “What’s the point? They can’t afford this place.”

In an online marketing video for European View Gardens, which is located on land formerly owned by Uyghurs, a Chinese-speaking narrator promotes digitalized images of the property’s beautiful landscaping and cascading fountains, which are populated by families and security guards who appear to be Han Chinese. Videos for similar properties in Kashgar can be found here and here.

New housing developments are also being promoted in other areas where demolitions have taken place, including the city of Bortala (Bole in Chinese). According to government officials in Bortala, the members of 600 households whose homes were demolished as part of a slum “transformation” project in the city, which undoubtedly affected the city’s Mongolian, Uyghur, and Kazakh residents, would be moved into a newly-built housing development called “Kuaile Jiayuan” (Happy Home). Ironically, none of the residents shown in the video advertisement for “Kuaile Jiayuan,” which features a very modern living environment, appear to be of a non-Han ethnicity.

The new housing developments featured in the videos are indistinguishable from cities in eastern China, thereby enticing Chinese residents who otherwise may have been uncomfortable moving to an environment outside of the Han cultural domain. These videos, and their lack of representation of Uyghurs and other non-Han peoples, raise doubts about who is benefiting from government policies to drive investment to Kashgar and other cities in East Turkestan. In Kashgar, officials have suggested that Uyghurs would be able to return to their rebuilt Old City residences in the wake of construction, but financial constraints make this seem unlikely. UHRP’s report documents the lack of compensation, or inadequate compensation, given to Old City residents for the loss of their homes.

A variety of complex factors, including official policies and profit-driven business initiatives, have spurred recent migration of Han Chinese into East Turkestan, and into Uyghur-dominated southern areas such as Kashgar. “Xinjiang watchers” who are skeptical of the role of the government in driving Han Chinese migration to East Turkestan often highlight the role of market incentives and globalization in terms of migration and of the demolitions of Uyghur communities. These factors should not be understated. However, without the existing political will from Beijing and the massive injections of “counterpart assistance” funding designated by central leaders at the May 2010 Work Forum, together with Beijing’s decision to mold Kashgar in the image of Shenzhen, it is doubtful that today’s levels of Chinese investment, particularly in southern areas of East Turkestan, would have been matched.

While directing investment and sped-up development to the region, Chinese officials have not acted to ensure that the indigenous Uyghur population will be able to secure a fair share of employment and business opportunities. Companies based in eastern China that set up shop in East Turkestan often bring workers with them from their home province, or draw from the labor pool of Han Chinese laborers already living in East Turkestan. Cultural similarities and discrimination fuel this tendency for companies to hire workers that share the same ethnicity. Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti has spoken about the severe nature of unemployment among Uyghurs in East Turkestan, asserting that large-scale in-migration of Han Chinese workers to the region exacerbates this problem.

A quick look at recent online job advertisements in Kashgar reveals a number of instances in which candidates are openly limited to members of the Han Chinese population. Several ads placed on a website for “Dongcheng Huayuan” (东城花园), one of the many new residential complexes springing up in the city, specify that applicants must be Han Chinese. One ad seeks two Chinese individuals with mechanical repair skills; another seeks an office manager and an office clerk, each of whom must be Han Chinese; and a third seeks an accountant and a cashier, each of whom must be Han Chinese. Examples of recent online job ads for companies throughout Kashgar that specify applicants must be Han Chinese also include this ad for two truck drivers; an ad for ten cashiers; and an ad for 12 advertising salespersons, 12 telephone marketing representatives and two website editors.

If the Chinese government is serious about bringing prosperity to all ethnicities in East Turkestan with its new development plans, it needs to work aggressively to end open discrimination in the employment sector and take steps to increase job opportunities for Uyghurs. Without Uyghur participation in the development drive that is taking place in the region, East Turkestan’s indigenous population will continue to suffer the effects of economic, cultural and social marginalization that state-led initiatives bring to the region. As Kashgar and other cities in East Turkestan become increasingly “Chinese,” Uyghurs are being pushed further to the margins, both in terms of their living spaces and their role in society. The widening ethnic gap in who benefits from regional transformation raises concerns about ethnic relations and the prospects for sustainable progress in East Turkestan.