Once the residential district of an important trade stop on the Silk Road, Kashgar’s “Old Town” (Uy. kona shähär), is becoming a living museum under Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule. The mazes of mud-brick homes, mosques, and shops in China’s westernmost city are diminishing at a rapid pace. According to plans drawn up by the CCP, 85 percent of Kashgar’s Old Town is to be demolished. Many of its residents will be relocated to newly-built multi-storied residential apartment compounds.
Recent reports have seized the crumbling old city trope to describe the consequences of Chinese imposed modernization—characterized by material wealth, sprawling cities, secular values—for “traditional” and “Islamic” Uyghur life. While analysts can’t measure the erosion of something as abstract as culture, they can tally the number of dwellings, some centuries-old that have been razed to the ground by Chinese bulldozers.
Certainly, the CCP’s uncompromising decision to rebuild Kashgar in its own image is tragic for several historical and aesthetic reasons; however the CCP’s reconstruction project does not necessarily threaten the survival of Uyghur culture, material or otherwise.
While the CCP’s motives for redeveloping Kashgar’s Old Town are likely multiple, to increase urban surveillance and control, strengthen disaster preparedness or improve sanitation, the elephant in the room, what seems to be provoking the most anger, appears yet again to be the near total absence of Uyghur presence in the decision-making process.
Indeed, the lack of meaningful autonomy for Uyghurs in Kashgar (and Xinjiang), as it has been guaranteed in China’s Ethnic Regional Autonomy Law, has strained their relationship with the CCP. Herein lies the fundamental source of the growing unrest in Xinjiang.
To be sure, some Uyghurs are genuinely upset about the current modernization project in Kashgar. During a 2012 stay in the remote oasis town, several Uyghur residents angrily complained about the destruction of the Old Town. Äziz, a young Uyghur man who had just returned to his hometown after completing his university education in an eastern Chinese city, was an especially vocal opponent. Strolls through the rubble of what is left of Old Town provided Äziz with exhibits to prove his case against CCP officials whom Äziz accused of treating Uyghurs unjustly. While pointing to a pile of dusty bricks representing what was left of a demolished home, Äziz alleged:
"These homes have been here for hundreds of years and have withstood major earthquakes. Even as recently as 2002, there was an earthquake that measured 7 or 8 on the Richter Scale near Kashgar, and none of these homes were destroyed. Now the government is flattening these homes because officials say they are unsafe, and they are replacing them with these new homes [pointing across the street]. You know why they are doing this don’t you? [I shrugged]. See, small shops are placed on the first floor of these new buildings. But we must live on the second and third floors, which become extremely hot [because hot air rises], especially in the summer. The government knows that we won’t be able to tolerate this heat."
But there is also a fairly strong Uyghur constituency for the new residential complexes. In July 2013, I spoke to one taxi driver in his early thirties who had recently moved into one of the new apartments. “Of course, I like my new house,” the man said, “It has running water, electricity, and air conditioning.”
Kashgar’s Uyghurs may be more split on the reconstruction of Old Town than some reports proclaim. Yet, most commentary on the modernization project in Kashgar continues to beg the question that the CCP is responsible for destroying “the heart of Uyghur culture”.
Certainly, the organization of Kashgar’s Old Town into “residential neighborhoods” known as mähälla in many Turkic languages (including Uyghur) has strong links to Uyghur culture and identity. Jay Dautcher, an anthropologist who has conducted extensive research in a mähälla located in northern Xinjiang, has convincingly demonstrated that these neighborhoods are “critical units[s] of social identity” for Uyghurs. In other words, the intimate layout of mähälla, create community bonds and strengthen feelings of solidarity among Uyghurs at a local level.
However, Uyghur identity does not rest on Kashgar’s mähälla. In fact, mähälla are not unique to Uyghur culture. Rather, they are representative of an urban landscape typical of Islamic Central Asia. Indeed Uyghur identity persists and their culture thrives outside close-knit mähälla communities in Ürümqi, Beijing, and even in cities in the US.
More threatening to the Uyghurs than the form of the new construction projects is the CCP’s top-down approach to its broader modernization agenda, which marginalizes Uyghur control and participation. Included under the “modernization” rubric are efforts to replace the Uyghur language with Putonghua in most political, legal, and educational realms, a boarding school program for Uyghur students resonant of Native American and Aboriginal boarding schools, and policies that attempt to suffocate Islam’s influence in the region.
Uyghurs remain absent from the highest government positions and therefore have little say in the future of Xinjiang. This reality has exacerbated Uyghur grievances.
The CCP’s strategy to forcibly integrate the Uyghurs into the Chinese mainstream is creating unintended and potentially explosive consequences. Uyghurs who desperately want (and deserve) to oversee some of Xinjiang’s social, economic, and political development, regard the CCP and its policies as “foreign” and even “colonial”.
As I have observed in Kashgar, politically powerless Uyghur residents are colliding with a (precisely non-Uyghur) state’s urbanization program. The result: local identities are being infused with anti-Chinese sentiments. In his review of the famous Uyghur novel City buried by Sand (Uy. Qum basqan shähär), brought to our attention by Gardner Bovingdon, the Uyghur intellectual Abduqadir Jalalidin writes, “If I construct a hell of my own devising, no matter how terrifying its flames, I will call it heaven. But a heaven built by others will cause my trees to wither.” If the Uyghurs continue to be excluded from important political decisions, they will regard Kashgar (as well as all of Xinjiang) as a living hell, no matter how “improved” it becomes.