Kashgar’s old city: the politics of demolition

Henryk Szadziewski
3 April 2009

In the heart of Kashgar's old city, the bustle of central Asian life has not changed in centuries. In bright sunlight, the mud-brick buildings seemingly blend in with labyrinth-like streets powdered by the sands of the Taklamakan desert. Coppersmiths hammer away making shapely bowls, pans and jugs, which will sit on the shelves of cool courtyard-fronted homes. A seller of shirniliq meghiz (hand-made Uyghur candy) pushes his cart in the heat of the day, stops, and wipes the sweat from his brow. Women, their heads covered with Henryk Szadziewski is the manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (www.uhrp.org). He lived in the People's Republic of China for five years, including a three-year period in Uyghur-populated regions. Henryk Szadziewski studied modern Chinese and Mongolian at the University of Leeds, and completed a master's degree at the University of Wales, where he specialised in Uyghur economic, social and cultural rights brown-coloured gauzed blankets, move from market-stall to market-stall discussing the cost of spices (sold in huge sacks) and cuts of mutton (hanging on shaded meat-hooks). Vendors selling hand-sewn doppas (Uyghur skull-caps) and brightly decorated knives from Yengisar, (the best in the region) watch donkey-cart drivers shouting the warning posh! posh! as they navigate the streets and the people. Minarets subtly overlook over the scene, reminding Kashgaris that in addition to trade, Islam is also an influence on their daily routines. Then, a muezzin's call breaks the activity and stirs the pious to hurry along the narrow streets to attend prayers.   

Such a portrait of timeless Uyghur traditions and livelihoods - so familiar from the work of travel-writers and journalists - is compelling. But there is another Kashgar, one firmly rooted in the 21st century. This Kashgar contains high-rise apartment blocks, cellphones, cars, western fashions, Dove chocolate bars and mass-produced consumer goods. Kashgaris are not only coppersmiths and traders; the Uyghur men and women of this city are also bank-tellers, university professors and auto-mechanics.

Kashgar has a long and layered past. It is a city with a history stretching over 2,000 years. Its location - in a fertile oasis to the north of the Pamir mountains and on the western edge of the Taklamakan desert - has put it at the centre of traffic heading west to central Asia and eventually to Europe, east to China and south to the sub-continent. As a crossroads between civilisations (sometimes the travel-writers' clichés are true), Kashgar was one of the major trading centres of the Silk Road; in his Travels, Marco Polo recorded a visit here in the 1270s.

Throughout its history, Kashgar has hosted a mix of peoples, religions and languages, among which the Uyghurs have been for centuries at the centre, giving this city its character and flavour. The Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim people, who consider Kashgar's old city as one of the cradles of their culture and the physical embodiment of an illustrious history. Today, however, in a story that has largely fallen under the radar of the international media, the old city is being demolished by the ruling Chinese government. This demolition brings with it some fundamental, opposed ideas that relate directly and personally to the many people affected: tradition vs modernity, conservation vs construction, assimilation vs resistance.  

The lure of the modern

The reports in official Chinese media indicate that the demolition of Kashgar's old city is well underway. The reports paint a benevolent picture of what is being called a "residents' resettlement project". A number of articles published in February 2009 outlined the specifics of the project. The Chinese authorities considered that the 65,000 houses in Kashgar's old city were suffering from poor drainage and were vulnerable to collapse from earthquakes. For their safety, the residents of the old city would therefore be moved to newly constructed buildings away from the area (see Maureen Fan, "An Ancient Culture, Bulldozed Away", 24 March 2009).

Among openDemocracy's articles on China:

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananmen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

Li Datong, "China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

Li Datong, "Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's long march to modernisation" (7 October 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009) 1.5 million foreign and domestic tourists visit Kashgar annually, generating approximately 620 million yuan in revenue; it adds that Kashgar's old city is a must-see tourist attraction. There would seem to be little economic incentive or logic, therefore, in demolishing the old city.

But the plans anticipate a switch of focus: a state official, Wang Zhengrong, explains that part of the old city will be "protected, managed, and developed" with the aim of "creating international heritage scenery". This will increase income from tourism, says Wang, who adds that under the plans tourists will still be able to view "minority lifestyle and architectural characteristics."  It is unclear what will be built in the demolished areas of the old city, but Wang Zhengrong's comments suggest that the remainder will operate as an open-air museum of Uyghur culture sanitised for tourist consumption.

In addition, the changes appear to involve new management of the old city. There have been rumours circulating online that the local government in Kashgar has offered a group of Han Chinese from Wenzhou the right to administer the area around the heart of the old city, the ancient Id-Kah mosque. In addition, oversight of the Appaq Khoja Mazar - a place of religious significance to Uyghurs, though outside the old city itself - has it is said been offered to a Han Chinese company called Jinkun. Whether these rumours are true, there is a genuine concern as to who the real beneficiaries are from the "residents' resettlement project". 

The control project

The official Chinese media proclaims the modernity of the new living arrangements for resettled Uyghurs, but at the same time neglects to pay much attention to the fact that former old-city residents have been relocated to an area approximately "eight to nine kilometres outside of the city" (according to a correspondent). It is difficult to avoid concluding that the resettlement of Uyghurs is part of a policy by the Chinese authorities to dilute Uyghur culture by taking control of how Uyghur communities are arranged. This control permits closer management of Uyghur activity in new regimented living arrangements, and forces on resettled Uyghurs a form of indebtedness where none existed before. 

What is left of Uyghur identity in the parts of Kashgar's' old city saved from the "residents resettlement project" is also subject to management by Chinese authorities. This management of ethnic identity by the Chinese Communist Party is a common phenomenon in the modern-day People's Republic of China (see Tsering Shakya, "Tibet and China: the past in the present", 18 March 2009). It has occurred too in places such as Jinghong in the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province, where during the 1990s - in a process lasting eight years - the town was transformed from a stronghold of Dai culture to an ethnic theme-park for predominately Han Chinese tourists. In the past, Dai water-festivals were reserved for particular times related to traditional beliefs; now, they have become daily events so that tourists can be sure to not miss out on the fun. 

But the situation in Kashgar is for China's leaders a far more grave matter than the one in Jinghong. In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, the Uyghurs are perceived as far more of a threat to its control and to the territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China than are the Dai. Uighurs, after all, share many cultural features with their Turkic cousins in the independent states of central Asia. Thus the assimilation of Uyghurs into China is seen as a policy priority, leading to greater control of Uyghur-related issues. This larger purpose is also behind its other elements: a reduction in the status of the Uyghur language, mass Han Chinese in-migration to Uyghur areas, and the transfer of Uyghur women to eastern China.   

What is clear from the "residents' resettlement project" is that the Uyghur voice in decision-making was not heard.  In the plans to relocate Uyghurs living in Kashgar's old city, transparent and meaningful participatory processes for Uyghurs were absent. There is no doubt that Uyghurs want better living conditions; but perhaps they would prefer this to happen in the context of using a sum equivalent to the project's 3 billion yuan to modernise their current old-city housing, while maintaining one of the few remaining centres of Uyghur culture. No one has asked them, and such an option appears nowhere in the official media.

If Uyghur participation in the "project" is absent, there is also no way for Uyghurs to address grievances stemming from the resettlement (such as unfair compensation) without fear of punishment. This too seems of little concern to Chinese authorities. They too will pay a price, however: for the result of the "residents' resettlement project" will be that tourists from developed nations will stay away from the old-city theme-park. Much more important, Uyghurs will be further marginalised and the prospect of a solution to their grievances will be even more distant.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData