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China's Ancient Silk Road City Of Kashgar Facing Threat Of Bulldozers

Demolition has begun in parts of Kashgar's Old City.
Demolition has begun in parts of Kashgar's Old City.
By Antoine Blua
The ancient Silk Road trading hub of Kashgar, in China's northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is being threatened by an ambitious government redevelopment plan that some say has a hidden political agenda.

Kashgar's old city has survived the centuries, and remains an important Islamic cultural center for the Uyghurs, the Turkic ethnic group living in Xinjiang.

According to Matthew Hu Xinyu, an adviser to the nongovernmental Beijing Cultural Protection Center, the densely packed houses and narrow lanes of old Kashgar are the best-preserved examples of a traditional Islamic city in all of China.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province in northwest China
But the government's reconstruction plan, Hu says, is threatening to destroy the picturesque labyrinth that makes up old Kashgar.

"Last fall, I heard that the plan would be carried out through the next three years. I thought we would have some time to organize experts or architects to work on a constructive plan -- to suggest a more conservative plan -- so that the city's heritage can be preserved," Hu said. "But early this year the total investment for the plan has been increased to [$440 million], and the demolition of the old houses started very quickly."

City officials have been moving a number of families out of Kashgar's city center, saying they need to rebuild old, dangerous houses and improve infrastructure. In total, the government says it plans to renovate or reconstruct more than 5 million square meters of old homes and resettle some 45,000 households.

Officials say the project is necessary because an earthquake could destroy old buildings, putting residents at risk. Indeed, earthquakes frequently rock Xinjiang. In 2003, a quake killed some 270 people.

Reports say wrecking crews razed the historic Xanliq madrasah, one of the province's protected cultural sites, on June 15. Mahmud al-Kashgari, the 11th-century scholar, is believed to have studied at the madrasah.

Traditional Lives


Dominated by a gigantic statue of Mao, old Kashgar has seen many changes in recent decades, including the construction of a main street running through the old town center. Cars, buses, and trucks clog the city streets.

If we have the houses removed and rebuilt, then this layout will disappear, and the significance of the city will disappear.
Still, many residents manage to live a far more traditional life. They live in tumbledown mud-brick rentals or two-story homes that open onto courtyards. Artisans hammer metal bowls, pans, and pots, carve wood, and hone brightly decorated knives.

Street vendors sell hand-made candy, fresh mutton, or hand-sewn skull caps. Donkey-cart drivers navigate the narrow streets.

It’s unclear what will remain of the design and way of life of the city, which is hundreds of years old, after the reconstruction project is completed. The city says important buildings will be preserved, while many homes will be rebuilt to better withstand earthquakes while still preserving Uyghur building styles. However, several sectors are expected to be rebuilt with modern apartment buildings, public plazas, and schools.

Officials say infrastructure such as water, electricity, and sewers systems also will be installed.

No Details Forthcoming

The Beijing Cultural Protection Center says nobody denies Uyghurs the right to development, modernization, and security. But the center worries that it has been unable to obtain any details of the reconstruction plan, which Hu says should ensure the preservation of the city’s unique heritage.

A gate in Kashgar's Old City
“If we look at every single one of these Uyghur people's homes [individually], it's not significant, [although] some of them have very interesting carvings on the door frame or on the architecture, the wooden parts," Hu says.

"But this group of [homes] shows a way of life [and] a way of urban planning -- how the city can be organized around different mosques. If we have the houses removed and rebuilt, then this layout will disappear, and the significance of the city will disappear," he said.

China and Central Asian states support a plan to propose major Silk Road sites for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List, an incentive for governments to preserve areas of historical and cultural significance.

Beijing, however, has not included old Kashgar in its list of proposed sites.

Henryk Szadziewski, manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C., taught for several years in Kashgar in the 1990s. He tells RFE/RL that there's no clear indication of what is going to be done with the remaining old city.

"As far as we understand the project, a remainder of the old city would be left, I imagine, to attract tourists. But who is going to manage that area and profit from the tourist revenue?" Szadziewski asks. "The tourist industry is worth about [$90 million] a year in Kashgar. We also have to remember that we have no indication that there was any meaningful participatory process that meant that the old city residents were party to the decision making."

Political Aspects Seen

The preservation of Kashgar's old town is facing challenges similar to those facing the preservation of other Chinese cities. But many see a political aspect to the redevelopment project in Kashgar, which Chinese officials consider a breeding ground for Uyghur separatism.

Chinese officials in recent years have alleged that Kashgar harbors terrorist cells. Uyghur extremists were blamed for a fatal attack on border police; two of the alleged organizers were executed this spring.

Uyghurs at a bazaar in Kashgar
Many see the Kashgar project as an attempt to remove the cultural roots of Uyghur separatism.

“There's definitely a difference between what's happening in eastern China and in Kashgar. That's largely due to the sensitivity over the Uyghurs and their particular concerns over human rights issues," Szadziewski says.

"The [Kashgar] project appears to be a tool to assimilate Uyghurs and to actually stifle peaceful dissent by putting old city residents from an organic living arrangement into a regimented, government-organized living arrangement. The [Chinese] authorities are able to monitor the activity of any peaceful dissent among Uyghurs,” he says.

Szadziewski says the assimilation process is taking place on many different fronts.

“One particular area is language, and we've seen a marginalization of Uyghur language in the economic sphere and the educational sphere," he says. "A 'China Daily' report said that learning Mandarin Chinese will help fight terrorism. The statement in itself may cast a sort of aspersion on Uyghur language itself, that it was a suspect language."

Critics accuse Beijing of using claims of terrorism as an excuse to crack down on peaceful pro-independence sentiment and expressions of Uyghur identity.
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Comment Sorting
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by: Josh from: Xinjiang
June 30, 2009 11:18
Great article on a very touchy subject. It's a sad situation which has left much rubble and a lot of questions in its wake.<br /><br />There is a lot to indicate that there is more to what Beijing says and does than meets the eye, but I believe that a lot of this just demonstrates China's insensitivity to minority cultures as opposed to its hostility. Not for everybody, but I think for the majority.<br /><br />Take a look at another article detailing both sides of the story:<br />&lt;a href=&quot;http://www.farwestchina.com/2009/05/kashgars-old-town-bulldozed-is-uyghur.html&quot;&gt;Kashgar's Old Town Bulldozed; Is Uyghur Culture in Danger?&lt;/a&gt;

by: Turgai Sangar
June 30, 2009 14:50
Kaşgar was one of the first places that I visited in Central Asia. That was in 1994. I returned two times since. Painful, painful… Allah biz bilen, Uiğurstan!

by: Abdul Majid
June 30, 2009 16:19
But of course this is only about suppressing and subduing teh Uighurs, just like in Tibet. There they haven't let but a few symbolic historic buioldings standing; teh Serbs have destroyed over 600 mosques in Bosnia ofr only the same reason: TO DENY A PEOPLE ITS HISTORY AND ITS IDENTITY. And siche the West continues to pander to China's rulers, it would be best to make some documentaries and picture books about old Kashgar before it is consigned to oblivion. Unfortunately, who tries this will be arrested and expelled for &quot;subversive activities&quot;. With the Chinese having so little respect for their own historic architecture, what can be expected of them for a people they consider hostile? They will not let one single brick standing, they will make of Old Kashgar what they call a &quot;socialist town with local character&quot; (actually, a local town with socialist character) in whose new apqartment blocks only rich (that is Han CVhinese) people will be allowed to live. Of course, one or the old landmark will be left standing as an alibi, but disconnected from its context. They even have a new name for Kashgar: Kashi. What a monstrous idea. Really, the Uighurs and the Tibetans should be free frmo Chinese misrule, like the Kosovo Albanians are free from serb misrule. But it is not going to happen, not in the most brutal, cruel and repressive dictatorship in the world. Who has the misfortune to live under the People's republic of China's misrule can give up all hope. It is only as well that China has no interest to conquer or subdue the world. Nevertheless, I for one will stay away from it as far as I can.

by: Abdulmajid
June 30, 2009 23:05
Dear Josh,<br /><br />yes, but I do believe that the Chinese is hostile to each and all who oppose it, and therefore it is open and particularly hostile to Tibetans and Uighurs. Insensitive and ham-fisted towards their cultural heritage too. So by the end of this year Kashgar as it existed for centuries will have disappered, except for a few symbolic shreds. Just look to Lhasa. And the worst thingh, if I dared to say that in public over there I would risk not only my freedom, but also my health and my life.<br /><br />And now I'm gonna add something that would surely send me before a firing squad: if back in 1949 the Nationaluits had won they would surely not behave as ham-fisted and cruel to the national minorities, especially teh Uighurs and Tibetans.<br /><br />And many Chinese do not know what their government and its repression system are doing to the Tibetans and the Uighurs. If the did they'd be horrorized. For after all they are human beings too, they are not devoid of empathy. Only it is too little, too late.

by: Turgai Sangar
July 01, 2009 08:02
&quot;Officials say the project is necessary because an earthquake could destroy old buildings, putting residents at risk.&quot; <br /><br />As if modern Han architecture is any better... We have seen that during the 2008 quake in Sichuan. <br /><br />Other than that, I agree with Henryk Szadziewski that the colonial Han government will likely leave a sanitised, disneyfied version of the old city for the sake of tourism: one Han-owned souvenir shop next to the other with the Uighurs only tolerated to figure as exotic background for disgusting fluo-capped Chinese tour groups and German feminists in birkenstock sandals.<br /><br />The whole thing fits into old Han racism. And by naively cosying up to China, the West does not yet understands that it cuddles a monster.

by: Maruek from: Paris
July 01, 2009 13:03
Photos of this part of the world<br />http://m.aries.free.fr/Xinjiang/

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
July 01, 2009 16:01
Ujghurs, do not let Chinese to destroy your history and heritage!<br /><br />Do not let to be repeated what happened in Khiva Uzbekistan during the Soviet period. Khiva is beautifully restored now but it is a &quot;dead citi&quot; with no inhabitants. <br />It is only a museum now...<br /><br />Destroying a nation's relic monuments is a step to eliminate that whole nation.<br /><br />Do not let this happen! Stand your ground as the Tibetans try to do.

by: ET
July 02, 2009 00:29
Josh, I commend your balanced approach to this issue, but you run the risk of becoming a Chinese apologist. There have been a number of &quot;insensitive&quot; initiatives, movements and campaigns throughout the history of CCP rule over the region. You would have thought that the CCP administration had learnt from its mistakes in the way it has managed its relations with the Uyghur. No one denies Uyghurs the right to modernization; however, it should be on their terms. Perhaps one lesson the CCP could have learnt is to consult those people most affected by its proposals. To wave away this dispersal of an entire <br />community as insensitivity is to ignore the fact that a concerted effort has been made to change the face of the region to a Han-friendly environment. Does the mass in-migration of Han Chinese into the area, while unemployment among Uyghurs has risen, also count as insensitive or as an exercise in bringing the region firmly into the Chinese fold?<br />

by: John
July 02, 2009 02:32
Whatever China does in Xinjiang is viewed from the ethnic point of view. If China didn’t do anything, and earthquakes happened, you still blame China. Just look at the people in Pakistan and Afghanistan for comparison, who are in war and poverty. Uyghur’s lives have improved just like the other people in China for the last 30 years. They should be grateful to what the government has done in terms of poverty relief and raising their living standard. <br /><br />

by: Abdulmajid
July 02, 2009 10:23
As in Tibet, china behaves like a colonial power by subduing and putting down the local population to advantage immigrants from China proper. And tehy sell this as fight against &quot;international terrorism&quot;. And since the opinion in the West is against Muslims anyway, they don't stand a chance. What remains of theri culture will be disneyfied and sanitized, and like the Tibetan culture only survive in exile and as fading memories. Even though there are now Chinese who are conscious of this being wrong, and that the more the living standard and eductaion in China improve,the more the rule of the Communist Party will be questioned and contested. Over time, China will come to accept democratic values and human rights. But these can't be imposed from the outside, China must realize them by itself. But for the Uighurs and for the Tibetans it will be too late. The most that can be expected is that they will someday enjoy the same rights and position as the Native Americans in the USA do today. <br />Sad, sad, sad.
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