Who Decides Kashgar’s Future?

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March 25, 2010

Written by Amy Reger

The fate of Kashgar’s Old City, a fabled stop on the Silk Road and an historic meeting point for the exchange of goods and ideas, hangs in the balance. The area, both home to 220,000 Uyghur residents and a vibrant hub of Uyghur culture, is located near China’s border with Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan.

Just to the south of the area is a giant statue of Mao Zedong, the largest statue of the revolutionary leader in China. Mao appears to have turned his back on the people of the Old City, the majority of whom are slated to be moved out from their traditional homes.

The Uyghur people, who speak a Turkic language and possess cultural and religious beliefs akin to their Central Asian neighbors rather than the Han Chinese, have maintained their unique cultural identity for centuries in this oasis town amid shaded courtyards and labyrinthine alleyways. In recent decades, they have struggled for the right to preserve their cultural and religious practices in Mao’s shadow.

Just over a year ago, Chinese government officials announced that the first group of 700 Uyghur families had been moved from their traditional homes to new apartment buildings on the outskirts of Kashgar as part of a “resettlement project.” China’s official Xinhua News Agency cited one Uyghur woman who, having just been relocated to the “Happy Garden” apartment complex, saying enthusiastically, “I’m so happy, because I never dreamed my family could live in such a safe, comfortable, spacious and bright home. From now on we will live well, thanks to the Party and government.”

Pictures related to the demolition and resettlement program that were published in early 2009 showed beaming Uyghurs next to red banners extolling the charity of the Chinese Communist Party. Not a single expression of discontent or the slightest bit of nostalgia over the loss of family homes have made their way into the pages of state media outlets to tarnish the image of grateful Uyghurs benefiting from Communist Party magnanimity.

Over the past year, a variety of organizations and individuals have rallied to preserve the area against the government’s plan to demolish 85 percent of the buildings. The imminent destruction of the centuries-old mud-brick houses, bazaars and mosques has caused groups around the world to lament both the architectural loss and the corresponding disappearance of traditional patterns of Uyghur life.

Kashgar embodies the spiritual and cultural heart of the Uyghurs’ homeland of East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). Visitors to Kashgar since February 2009 have commented on the apparent rapid progress of bulldozers, as well as on their poignant appreciation of seeing what was left of the Old City before it was consigned to the ashes of history.

In June 2009, Hollywood filmmaker Marc Forster expressed his concern over the destruction. Forster lived in Kashgar for several months in 2006 while directing the movie “The Kite Runner,” as the traditional Central Asian architecture was used as a stand-in for the Afghan city of Kabul, where much of the film is set.

Organizations that have publicly expressed concern about the Old City’s demolition include Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), Heritage Key, Heritage Watch, and, notably, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. The commitment shown by the latter organization to documenting the progress of destruction is significant in that this work is being carried out within China, where any expression of support on Uyghur issues is deemed politically sensitive and subject to censure and retribution.

In typical fashion, Chinese officials have touted the demolition project as reflective of the Communist Party’s benevolence toward the Uyghur people, considering the earthquake risk prevalent in the region and the lack of modern infrastructure in the Old City.

Insofar as Chinese officials have acknowledged international criticism of the Old City’s demolition, they have portrayed such criticism as anti-modernist and uncaring, asserting that foreigners seek to preserve only buildings, while their inhabitants suffer from a lack of modern facilities. Kashgar’s mayor put it thus, while asserting that the Old City’s traditional homes were dangerous and backward: “…why should our people live in houses like this just for the sake of tourists?”

Whether or not Uyghurs benefit from their relocation to apartment-block housing on the edges of Kashgar, the most important question to ask is whether or not the Chinese government consulted Uyghurs themselves regarding whether or not they desired to leave their traditional family homes.

And while China’s state-backed press has asserted that residents were consulted regarding the “resettlement project”, official documents published in a May 2009 report implicitly recognize the existence of widespread discontent. The report indicates that not only were Uyghurs not consulted about the demolition, but local cadres were threatened with legal punishment if they were unable to “convince” residents of the benefits of relocation.

The Chinese government’s failure to give Uyghurs a choice and consult them on the “resettlement project” and their own future is unfortunately consistent with a top-down approach to development throughout East Turkestan and a failure to give Uyghurs a voice in political and economic policy. Perhaps, if given the choice, many Uyghurs would indeed choose the convenience of modern plumbing and heating over the substandard plumbing and heating conditions that existed in their old city homes. Perhaps, if given the choice, Uyghurs would strive to modify their existing dwellings to update them with modern facilities.

However, Uyghurs were not given this choice, just as they are no longer given a choice regarding whether their children will learn in their native language or in Mandarin Chinese. They are also not given a voice in the exploitation of the region’s natural resources, which directly impacts their lives. Chinese government officials make all of these decisions, and Uyghurs are expected to be duly appreciative.

The demolition project is also consistent with other government-led initiatives to Sinify Uyghurs and to make East Turkestan more palatable for the many Han Chinese who have moved into the region in recent years. Government-sponsored programs have led young Uyghurs to work in factories in eastern China, and to study in special “Xinjiang classes” in Chinese high schools.

Meanwhile, the in-migration of Han Chinese has led to the dilution of Uyghur culture, particularly in urban areas of East Turkestan. A train line from Urumqi to Kashgar that was launched in 1999 has enhanced transportation options for everyone in the region, but it has also facilitated the southward migration of Han Chinese migrants in the region and increased ethnic tensions in cities such as Kashgar.

The disappearance of the Old City will make Kashgar less foreign to the increasing number of Han Chinese who have recently moved into the southern part of East Turkestan, and who will be more comfortable with newly-developed buildings that resemble those in cities throughout China. Meanwhile, as the buildings have been torn down block by block, the space in which Uyghurs can freely express their Uyghur identity has shrunk correspondingly, and a space that has provided refuge from Han society has begun to disappear.

It is clear that Chinese officials will benefit from the demolition in that they will have a much easier time monitoring the activities of Uyghurs in the generic housing blocks of “Happy Garden.” A photograph published recently in the National Geographic magazine reveals one of the surveillance cameras installed in the new housing project to enable the government to keep a watchful eye on the comings and goings of Uyghur residents.

Government officials’ efforts to monitor and control the lives of Uyghurs in Kashgar intensified in the wake of deadly unrest in the regional capital of Urumqi in July 2009. Some reports indicate that many Uyghurs who took part in a July 5 protest originated from Kashgar and other predominantly Uyghur southern oasis towns. International media reports documented an intense military and police presence in Kashgar in the wake of the July unrest. Several foreign journalists investigating the situation after July 5 were detained and kicked out of the city.

A government-enforced, region-wide blockage on Internet and phone communications since July 5, which remains largely in place today, has made it difficult to track the progress of the Old City’s demolition. It is unclear just how much remains. According to a January 2010 article from the Global Post, however, demolition slowed and then stopped in the wake of the unrest, after 5 to 10 percent of the Old City had been flattened and a thousand of the families had been relocated.

The report suggests that, in addition to weather-related concerns, the slowdown came about as a result of government fears over provoking discontent among Kashgar’s Uyghur residents in the post-July 5 environment.

In addition, the Global Post report highlights Chinese officials’ misrepresentation of UNESCO’s views toward the demolition of Kashgar’s Old City. The article cites UNESCO representative Beatrice Kaldun as disagreeing with a billboard erected by the government telling Kashgar residents that UNESCO admired the demolition project. Kaldun made clear during an interview with the Global Post that UNESCO was concerned about preserving cultural heritage, which she believes is being destroyed. She indicated that UNESCO hoped to convince Chinese officials to preserve more of the Old City by rewarding such preservation with inclusion of the city on a World Heritage preservation list.

However, the Global Post report indicates that the billboard remains standing. In addition, during the most recent meeting of China’s national legislature, Kashgar Prefecture commissioner Akbar Hupur cited a UNESCO report from June 2009 that, according to him, said the demolition project in the Old City had maintained “original architectural and cultural characteristics” and “maintained local people’s traditional way of life.”

Groups such as SAFE have called on UNESCO to take the action of awarding Kashgar UN World Heritage Site Status, since, they assert, the city is a glaring omission from the Chinese portion of the Silk Road currently being considered by UNESCO for the World Heritage List. As stated in SAFE’s petition, the failure to evaluate and protect the Old City’s historical value runs counter to both Chinese law and UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention.

Thus far, however, UNESCO has not made an official public statement regarding either China’s misrepresentation of its views or the omission of Kashgar from China’s candidates for the World Heritage List.

Kupur, the Kashgar Prefecture official, stated that the Old City’s “renovation” is designed to “preserve the original appearance of the ancient city.” However, if the past and present are any indication, the “preserved” portion of the Old City will offer up a pantomimed version of life.

A small portion of the area, managed by the government, provides a sterile, theme park-like peek into “authentic Uyghur life”, complete with souvenirs and ethnic unity propaganda, for 30 yuan. A typical sign in this government-managed section proclaims “Family especially for visiting”, and goes on to state thus: “Three generation family, the house with beautiful carving and beam painting. You can enjoy many kinds of fruits/dry fruits and milk tea also Uyghur style snack. Detail should negotiate with host.”

The future of the cty remains uncertain. Reconstruction blueprints unveiled publicly last summer reveal plans to erect residential spaces, office buildings, and schools in tidy geometric patterns in place of the maze of 65,000 households that previously served Uyghur communal life and commerce. A construction company from eastern China is rumored to have development rights, and it is unclear how involved Uyghurs may be in the development process, or what portion of the profits they will reap. It is also unclear how many Uyghurs will be relocated to back once it has been rebuilt.

The future of Uyghurs relocated to “Happy Garden” is also filled with uncertainty. Recent reports have cited residents who complain of challenges finding transportation to shopping areas and places of worship (no mosque has yet been built in the new community). There has been no news of any existing programs to provide employment assistance to those whose workplaces have been eradicated by the demolition project. Meanwhile, journalists have expressed skepticism that the hollow-sounding walls of Happy Garden’s apartment buildings could withstand an earthquake, saying the buildings already exhibit visible wear and tear, including plaster and polystyrene “bursting through fresh coats of paint.”

Uyghurs themselves appear to have little say in the transformation of and the accompanying changes to their lives. They can do little but watch and wait as a new chapter in their long history is written for them.

Amy Reger is a Researcher for the Uyghur Human Rights Project