China tightens screws on Uyghurs

Asia Times

September 4, 2009 | Asia Times | By Henryk Szadziewski

The Old City of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang region is facing demolition despite the dislocation it will cause to thousands of Uyghurs and the loss of a unique architectural heritage. Officials state the demolition is a necessary step for modernization, but Uyghurs believe it is another step in their assimilation into China. It is another sore case of forced modernization upon marginalized people.

Buried in the sands of the vast Taklamakan Desert are the ruins of several Silk Road cities, where an ancient civilization became the center of Central Asian culture and learning. These lost cities could soon be joined by the Old City of Kashgar should the Chinese authorities succeed in their plan to bulldoze and bury it in rubble. With the demolition of Kashgar Old City, the Chinese government will destroy one of the few remaining cradles of Uyghur culture and a testament to centuries of Uyghur history. Unlike the fabled cities of the Silk Road, Kashgar Old City faces its destruction not to the forces of nature, but to the politics of assimilation.

Uyghurs are an ethnically and culturally Turkic people distinct from the Han Chinese, who constitute 92% of the total population of the People’s Republic of China. The Uyghur homeland of East Turkestan, an area which the Chinese authorities call Xinjiang, is located in the northwest of the current borders of China. In October 1949, the People’s Liberation Army established military control over East Turkestan, which has lasted to the present day. The region is resource rich and geopolitically strategic as it sits between Central, South and East Asia. The Chinese government’s thirst for energy to drive its economy and its growing dominance in global affairs has therefore directed its attention to the region and to the inconvenience of the Uyghur people who live in the area. The message from Beijing is clear; the region must be firmly brought into the Chinese fold.

Kashgar Old City is as important to the Uyghurs as Jerusalem is to Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is a physical embodiment of the Uyghur identity, signifying its past, present and future. This is the city of great Uyghur scholars such as Yusuf Has Hajib and Mahmud al-Kashgari, where contemporary Uyghurs earn their living, go to school and worship, and where city planners from the West learn how to build the next generation of integrated communities. In addition, Kashgar’s bazaars and unique architecture draws admiring visitors from around the world seeking to experience the diversity of life with which this planet is so blessed.

However, none of this means much to the Chinese authorities determined to put an end to an organic community which has evolved over the centuries. The 220,000 Uyghurs who presently live in the Old City are scheduled to be moved out within five years to uniform apartment blocks reportedly eight kilometers outside of the city. Unsurprisingly, there was no participatory process for Old City residents during the decision-making process. David Gosset’s assertion in his August 19, 2009 article, Xinjiang serves as pan-Asian pivot, that Wang Xiaodong, “a recognized specialist in Islamic architecture”, is leading the redevelopment merely illustrates that Uyghur input is minimal. The official reason given for uprooting nearly a quarter of a million Uyghurs from their homes and places of business is that the buildings in the Old City have been deemed vulnerable to collapse should an earthquake strike; however, this apparent benevolence seems out of character with a regime which has spent a significant amount of money and energy on assimilating Uyghurs.

The Chinese government’s reasoning for this mass-transfer of Uyghurs has received short shrift from many quarters, most notably from Han Chinese people themselves. Wu Dianting, a professor at Beijing Normal University’s School of Geography, as well as Wu Lili, the managing director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, have both gone on record as stating that the resettlement of Old City Uyghurs is not only “cruel” because of the destruction of the Uyghur lifestyle, but also unnecessary. Professor Wu believes that the money used to destroy Uyghur homes, over U.S. $440 million, could be better served by reinforcing and repairing existing housing. While David Gosset argues that the necessity to “upgrade Kashgar’s old district” entails a wholesale demolition of the homes of Uyghur families, Professor Wu believes that the raising of domestic living standards can be done to existing structures. Indeed, the new apartment blocks to which Kashgar Old City residents are being moved have been shown to be already crumbling by Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Stephen McDonell in a recent report.

Now the demolition joins a long list of Chinese government initiatives which have been designed with the aim of assimilating Uyghurs into China. Prior to the demolition, there has been a concerted effort to eradicate the distinct Uyghur identity so as to firmly place the region into the People’s Republic. The mass in-migration of Han Chinese into East Turkestan and the forced transfer of Uyghur women to the sweat shops of eastern China indicate a policy of grossly unequal population exchange. In addition, Chinese authorities have mandated a monolingual language planning policy in the education system which will eliminate the use of Uyghur in the public sector. Recently, Nur Bekri, Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, went so far as to suggest that speaking Uyghur makes one a terrorist suspect. Curbs on religious freedom, such as the prohibition of Uyghurs under the age of 18 from attending mosques, further distance Uyghur children from their culture. All of these policies are overt and well-documented. What the Chinese authorities would not like to see documented is the intimidation that accompanies such policies of assimilation.

This intimidation of Uyghurs is predictably a feature of the Kashgar Old City demolition. Faced with endless propaganda, including television programs and signs throughout the Old City exhorting them to leave, Old City residents report a palpable fear in the air among those remaining due to a heavy police presence. Those who wish to stay face a lack of any institutional mechanism with which to express their grievances, and fear that if they voice any complaints, they may be subject to severe punishment from authorities.

While the loss of Kashgar Old City is another blow to Uyghurs struggling to maintain their cultural identity in the face of intense Chinese pressure to assimilate, it is also a terrible loss to world heritage, which makes the demolition an international issue. The disappearance of unique architecture, the dispersal of a distinct community and the assimilation of a people are all concerns for those who value diversity in the modern world.

Henryk Szadziewski is the manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. He lived in China for five years, including a three-year period in Kashgar. Mr. Szadziewski has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Leeds (UK) in Modern Chinese and Mongolian Studies, and a master’s degree in Development Management (with distinction) from the University of Wales (UK) where he specialized in Uyghur economic, social and cultural rights. Mr. Szadziewski has authored numerous articles for publications such as and the Caucasian Review of International Affairs, and offered commentary on Uyghurs for news agencies such as Time, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Asia and the Washington Times.