Uighurs fume as China remodels an ancient city

Uighurs fume as China remodels an ancient city

For many, it is a symbol of the government's efforts to destroy their cultural identity

Uighurs fume as China remodels an ancient city

Visitors walking through the mud-brick rubble and yawning craters where close-packed houses and bazaars once stood could be forgiven for thinking that the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar had been irrevocably lost to the wrecking ball.

A billboard looming over the ruins tries to counter that impression: “Inherit and preserve the historical culture to showcase a brand new Kashgar.”

The Chinese authorities set out five years ago to modernise Kashgar’s fabled Old City district while promising to preserve its dense Casbah-like charms. But the results underscore the growing divide between the government and the ethnic minority that lives here — the Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people who have chafed at Beijing’s rule since Communist troops took over their traditional homeland in 1949. The region, in China’s far west, is now known as Xinjiang, a Mandarin term meaning “new frontier.”

The official narrative of the modernisation project justified tearing down 65,000 homes and resettling 220,000 Uighur residents as crucial to improving their lives. “Houses in the Old City of Kashgar are mostly old and dilapidated, extremely vulnerable to earthquakes and fire,” said a 2010 report by Xinhua, the state news agency, that was widely republished in the Chinese government-controlled media. “The renovation of the Old City zone in Kashgar is a project that complied with the wishes of the people,” the report claimed.

But propaganda slogans posted across the Old City, like “Everyone has the responsibility to create peace and security,” hint at political tremors in Xinjiang that are much more worrying to the Chinese government than any natural disaster. Uighurs have protested discrimination, restrictive religious policies and suppression of Uighur-language education as people from the Han majority have settled in Xinjiang by the millions.

The tensions have spilled over into increasingly violent clashes. Last week, violence spread to a railway station in a distant southwest Chinese city, Kunming, where a group of knife-wielding assailants killed at least 29 people and wounded 143. The Chinese authorities described the mass slaughter as a “premeditated, violent terrorist attack” perpetrated by separatists from Xinjiang.

For many Uighurs, the demolition of Kashgar’s Old City is a physical symbol of the Chinese government’s efforts to destroy their cultural identity. More than two-thirds of the centuries-old houses there have been razed and replaced with new buildings made to look old and equipped with central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity. The government pays for building a new house’s first floor; residents must pay for everything else.

Some residents are pleased. “Even though the neighbourhood has changed, we’re much happier with our new house,” said a dressmaker who identified herself only as Ayesha, standing in her new kitchen. Though none of the arabesque filigree details of her family’s 500-year-old residence were preserved, she said, her family incorporated traditional design elements into the new doors and windows. “It’s a lot safer,” she added.

But many of the former residents could not afford what is essentially gentrification by government fiat, and they have not returned to the neighbourhood. The Uighurs who have come back tend to be the wealthier ones, government employees and successful merchants whose economic well-being depends on their cooperation with the Han-dominated authorities.

Zero-tolerance system

The rest have been scattered to drab apartment blocks on the city’s outskirts, far from their traditional way of life. Local officials silenced any complaints and introduced a so-called zero-tolerance system to keep residents from airing their grievances to higher authorities.

At the end of a dusty alley, an aging Uighur woman eagerly welcomed visitors into her 300-year-old courtyard home. Built by a wealthy silk-trading ancestor, the house has seen better days. In the main room, now used for storage, a naked bulb illuminated diamond-shaped mosaics of green and white tile, framing recessed antique shelves with foliated arches. But the raw logs propping up the ceiling were a more recent addition, installed after construction work by her neighbours caused long cracks in the room’s walls.

Kashgar has been viewed as the jewel of Uighur civilisation for centuries, a center of trade and Islamic learning on the caravan routes linking Europe and Persia with China. Marco Polo visited in the 13th century. Today, it is the westernmost sizable city in China, near the borders with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Beijing gave it the privileged status of a Special Economic Zone in 2010 in the hope that a flood of investment and infrastructure projects would help quell political instability.

But ethnic tensions in Xinjiang have increasingly boiled over into violence, most notably in deadly riots in Urumqi, the regional capital, in 2009. Clashes over the past year have claimed more than 100 lives, many of them Uighurs killed by security forces during what officials describe as terrorist attacks. Uighur exile groups put the blame for the bloodshed on paramilitary police officers they say have been given the green light to use deadly force against unarmed protesters.

The first sign that the strife was metastasizing beyond Xinjiang appeared in October, when a vehicle carrying three Uighurs fatally plowed into two pedestrians near Tiananmen Square in Beijing and wounded 40 others before bursting into flames. The Chinese authorities said the attack was the work of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant Uighur group.

In Kashgar, security forces standing guard with guns and shields are a familiar sight. They are particularly visible in People’s Square, which is dominated by a statue of Mao waving toward the Han area of the city; his back is to the demolished Uighur quarter.
What remains of the Old City is rapidly being turned into an ethnic theme park, with a $5 admission charge. The Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group has leased the area from the neighbourhood Communist Party committee and is marketing it as a “living Uighur folk museum.”

According to Xu Lin, vice president of the company’s Kashgar branch, 20 households have signed contracts to open up their homes for tourists, earning around $8,300 annually from the sale of food and trinkets. “Now every family wants to join,” Ms Xu said. She added that the company hoped the Old City might one day be designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

Those hopes, though, have crumbled along with the old houses. Beatrice Kaldun, UNESCO’s cultural specialist in Beijing, called the redevelopment of Kashgar “one of the black spots of heritage conservation.” Recalling a mission to Kashgar in 2009 to meet officials and inspect the government’s construction plans, Ms Kaldun said she was shocked by the scale of destruction. Though she made delicate diplomatic requests that the authorities respect local people and building customs, Chinese officials used her trip in a propaganda campaign to imply that Unesco had endorsed the redevelopment.

Ms Kaldun rejected that assertion. She likened the razing of the Old City to the Taliban’s demolition of the huge sixth-century Buddha statues in Bamian, Afghanistan, in 2001, saying it was too late to save either one.