Time is almost up for the old city of Kashgar. For the last three years, and over the silence of the international community, the din of bulldozers has reverberated across this ancient Silk Road hub. The demolition of the heart of Kashgar, a process accompanied by countless individual stories of loss, heralds the end of a distinct Uyghur culture. In the People's Republic of China, development planning equates to a no-choice acceptance of whatever blueprint for the future of communities the party-state chooses.
Kashgar old city has long held a central place in Uyghur culture and history. A distinguished line of Uyghur scholars, such as the renowned 11th-century Turkic-language lexicographer Mahmud Kashgari, made Kashgar a focal point of learning. Throughout its many-layered existence - as a major Silk Road trading axis, "great game" listening-post and birthplace of the first East Turkestan republic - the Turkic people of this urban oasis have formed the core of its ingenuity and progress. It can be said without exaggeration that Kashgar old city is the physical embodiment of Uyghur history; but it is also, amid the current desecration, the source of Uyghur thinking on the Uyghurs' own preferred course of development.
The Uyghurs' record of long-term settlement and self-management means little to the current Chinese administration. A plan it laid out in 2009, funded both from regional and central coffers, ordained the demolition and reconstruction of most of the eight square kilometers that encompass the old city. By the end of the project, 65,000 Uyghur households will have been relocated to uniform apartment-blocks on the city's fringes. So far, it is estimated that two-thirds of the old city has been torn down. There are few genuine preservation efforts, although - reflecting the characteristic style and mindset of the Chinese authorities - small areas of the old city are set aside for tourists to pick over.
The urgency of the demolition project took on new life after the convening of the "Xinjiang work forum" in Beijing in May 2010. This initiative, following the outbreak of unrest in 2009 in the regional capital of Urumchi, was an attempt to breathe new life into state-development initiatives in the Uyghur region. The Chinese government had blamed the tensions on "overseas forces", though the work forum was a tacit admission that inequity between Uyghurs and Han Chinese (in education, income, employment, and life-chances) was a contributing factor.
The meeting was held without any Uyghur input whatever, which made its conclusion - let's do more of the same, only faster - unsurprising. The pace of demolitions of Uyghur neighbourhoods accelerated, as did the imposition of Mandarin-only education. The devaluation of local expertise was underscored by a "pairing" initiative that invited provinces from around China to lend their knowledge to the region, even when in almost all cases they will have little or no understanding of its particular character.
A defining question
The absence of Uyghur participation in decision-making and project-monitoring in relation to the 2009 plan and its implementation makes it difficult to understand what the Uyghurs of the old city would have wanted to see happen. In my own experience of the city and through conversations with Uyghurs, there has been little evidence of desire for wholesale demolition. In these exchanges, the very clear vision most Uyghurs express would involve renovating - not demolishing - the houses of the old city.
A new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project details the destruction of Uyghur neighborhoods across the region and records the views of experts who share the view that "preservation" and "development" are by no means inconsistent. For example, it cites the recommendation of the Global Heritage Network that retrofitting old-city houses with strengthened foundations would be inexpensive, and the successful work done at the earthen settlement of Shibam in Yemen under the auspices of the conservation and improvement programmes of the International Scientific Committee on Earthen Architectural Heritage.
The old city is a short walk from the campus of Kashgar teachers' college, where I worked as a teacher for three years. The bustling teahouses, mosques and bazaars were a far cry from my student days in Beijing. Very quickly, and true to Uyghur traditions of hospitality, I was welcomed into the life of the old city. Friends invited me to join in religious holidays, attend their family weddings, do some side-teaching at a language school for rural Uyghur children and engage in furtive discussions on politics. Whenever I smell cumin, I am transported back to the food stalls of Kashgar. The demolition of the labyrinthine old city means that the refuge it provided to Uyghurs' cultural practices, and the space for the voicing of their true thoughts and dissident opinions, will also be buried in the rubble.
The marginalisation and dispossession underway in the Uyghur region matters, for all the indifference to and disregard of the Uyghurs who live there. Their fate and the future of their region now lie in the hands of others; but their experience is far more than a mere by-product of "globalisation" or the result of "inevitable" change. Rather, the Uyghurs' experience is at the heart of the contemporary world. Who determines development, and what should it look like? With China increasing its role as a donor country to emerging economies, that question should take on renewed importance.