Kashgar’s old city: landscape of loss

The Chinese authorities’ continuing demolition of the urban heartland of Uyghur society is also the outward face of a deeper dispossession, says Henryk Szadziewski.
Henryk Szadziewski
24 March 2010

The dust that now rises in Kashgar’s old city comes no longer from the sands of the Taklamakan desert, but from the debris of centuries-old houses demolished in a “residents’-resettlement” project. This historic urban heartland of Uyghur society was once given its character by the lively trade in the bazaars, the vibrant alleyway communities, and the cool refuge of shaded courtyards; today, its defining feature is the gap-toothed and pockmarked landscape of flattened houses razed by Chinese bulldozers (see "Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition", 3 April 2009). 

The Chinese authorities in the far-west Xinjiang region of the people's republic declared in early 2009 that 65,000 homes in Kashgar’s old city - an area that encompasses nearly eight square kilometres -  were unfit for habitation due to poor drainage and concerns over potential collapse in the event of an earthquake. It is unclear exactly how much of the old city has been demolished since then; but it is known that a significant number of Uyghurs have been relocated to new apartment-blocks eight-to-nine kilometres from Kashgar’s centre, and find their new residencies conveniently fitted with the trappings of modern surveillance such as CCTV cameras.  

The demolition of Kashgar’s old city is in itself a great loss to world heritage and a serious threat to the survival of what is most distinctive and precious about Uyghur material culture, architecture, and human community. What makes the process all the more insidious is that is being accompanied by a relentless marginalisation of Uyghurs in their own homeland as the demographic increase of the Chinese is reinforced by a tightening of political control.

A closed system

The Chinese government argues that the demolition is necessary to the “modernisation” of the Uyghur people. Kashgar’s deputy mayor, Xu Jianrong, makes the case: “Why should our people live in houses like this just for the sake of tourists?” This is a fair point, but Xu Jianrong neglects to mention a vital point: the Uyghur people in the old city were never genuinely consulted on whether they wished to continue to live in their family homes (as in many cases they had for generations); nor whether there was an alternative to outright demolition of “houses like this” that have so long withstood climatic and political changes.

The Chinese announcement provoked a flurry of international media interest, though reporting of the proposed demolition was soon succeeded by coverage of the eruption and aftermath of deadly unrest in the Uyghur regional capital of Urumchi in July 2009 (see “The discovery of the Uyghurs”, 10 July 2009). This loss of interest is unfortunate, since the issues are connected: for a close study of Chinese officialdom’s approach to the demolition reveals a seething discontent that puts the Urumchi protests into context and helps explain their ferocity. In particular, the exclusion of Uyghurs from any real participation shaping the “residents’-resettlement” project illustrates the systemic discrimination they suffer from Chinese state policy.

A curbed tongue

The key feature of this policy is a rigorously top-down approach to development-planning in the region that effectively denies Uyghurs voice in initiatives that affect their neighborhoods, communities and region. It has many dimensions, from politics and education to architecture and culture; whichever topic is examined, the systemic underpinnings of a quite deliberate authoritiarian project are revealed.

The case of language-planning policy is but one example. Here, the Chinese government is phasing out Uyghur as a language of instruction in favour of Mandarin - a move justified in China’s official “modernisation” discourse as designed to give Uyghurs crucial skills they need to compete in the Chinese job-market. However, no Uyghur parents were ever asked their view about the removal of their mother-tongue from their children’ schools.

This typically patrician approach has defined the attitude of Han Chinese to the Uyghur “minority” for decades (see James A Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang [C Hurst, 2007]). It renders null the authorities’ vain and self-glorifying  talk of “equality” between the peoples. The injustice is compounded by the fact that when Uyghurs voice discontent at their treatment they are rewarded by being branded at least ungrateful and at worst as separatists or terrorists - and treated accordingly (see Kerry Brown, “Xinjiang: China’s security high-alert”, 14 July 2009).

The case of Ilham Tohti is emblematic. Tohti is an Uyghur social scientist based in Beijing; he hosts a website that seeks to reconcile Han Chinese and Uyghur, and to intelligently discuss the economic inequalities between them. In the wake of the Urumchi troubles, the Xinjiang government accused Ilham Tohti of “spreading rumours” on his website that instigated the turmoil. Such intimidation targets those with serious and responsible intentions, and drives many others into fearful silence; it thus only displaces but does nothing to address the vast discontents produced by the Chinese government’s version of “development” (see Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uighurs and China: lost and found nation", 6 July 2009).  

A silenced voice

In this asphyxiated climate, it is hard to establish the true thoughts and perspectives of Uyghur civil society (such as it is) on “development”, and how it relates to the official Chinese view. There is simply no space for any kind of dialogue between them. The internet, where it was possible for Uyghurs safely to share opinions and build virtual communities, has been under lockdown since July 2009.  

It is likely that the demolition of Kashgar’s old city will continue unabated, and the Chinese media will continue to publish stories that illustrate the gratitude of the Uyghur people. In their position, the Uyghur people of Kashgar need friends to speak up when they cannot. It is deeply regrettable then that  even powerful agencies such as Unesco - which have both the responsibility and the power to voice opposition to unfettered destruction of valuable parts of the world’s built heritage - remain silent. The Kashgar municipal government has interpreted this as Unesco support for its project - and displays prominent signs in the old city saying so.

This is not just an “Uyghur” issue. It is at every level a global issue too. If, to take but one aspect, the Chinese government can succeed in disregarding civil society and refusing to consult on matters that affect the lives of thousands of people, this can become an attractive model for other governments in the emerging era of worldwide Chinese influence. It may be too late for the Uyghurs of Kashgar, but there is still time for people elsewhere to learn the lessons of their dispossession.

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