China Bulldozes Uighur Identity

Tue. Mar. 24, 2009 & Newspapers

CAIRO — After security crackdowns and religious repression, Chinese bulldozers are now targeting Muslim Uighurs' centuries-old city which symbolizes the identity they have preserved for hundreds of years.

"This is our land," a 48-year-old woman from the city of Kashgar, told the Washington Post on Tuesday, March 24, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"We have not bought it from the government," fumed the hijab-clad woman.

Built of mud brick, the courtyard homes of Kashgar, an ancient city at the heart of the northwest Xinjiang Autonomous Region, were handed down through generations, resisting aging elements for hundreds of years.

The government has launched a plan to move 50,000 people out of Kashgar old city, home to 220,000 people or 42 percent of Kashgar population, into modern apartment buildings.

The first 100 families have already been forced out of their homes and moved into government housing.

"Everybody is unhappy about this, but government is government, we can do nothing," lamented a 60-year resident.

Officials argue that some houses in Kashgar are too far away from fire hydrants and the old city has become dangerously overcrowded.

They say the deadly earthquake that hit the province of Sichuan last May added urgency to the project.

But experts maintain that the city's traditional mud brick homes, which have stood for centuries, are neither dangerous nor backward.

"The buildings are very scientific," insists Wu Dianting, a professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal University's School of Geography, who conducted field research in Kashgar last year.

"They are warm in winter and cold in summer. The technology used saves material and is environmentally protective."


Many see the demolition of the city's ancient houses as part of targeting the few authentic representations of Uighurs' culture and identity.

"The old town reflects the Muslim culture of the Uighurs very well -- it has the original taste and flavor without any changes," professor Wu told the Post.

"Here, Uighur culture is attached to those raw earth buildings. If they are torn down, the affiliated culture will be destroyed."

Kashgar has long been noted as a political and commercial centre of Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region autonomous since 1955

Beijing views the vast region as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asia and its large oil and gas reserves.

Xinjiang and its Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of more than eight million, continue to be the subject of massive security crackdowns.

The Muslim minority accuses the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.

They also cite a recent government plan that has brought the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in Xinjiang schools, replacing their local dialect.

In its 2008 human rights report, the US State Department accused China of severe repression in Xinjiang.

"They want us to live like Chinese people," said the hijab-clad Kashgar woman.

"But we will never agree."