The National, May 3, 2009
China razes the cradle of a culture
BY PAUL MOONEY
[A street in Kashgar's old town, Sept. 30, 2007] KASHGAR, CHINA // An old way of life is coming to a crashing end in north-western China with two-thirds of Kashgar’s Old City being bulldozed over the past few weeks under a government plan to “modernise” the area.
The few remaining houses still standing are marked with an ominous-looking Chinese character written in red with a circle drawn around it. The character, pronounced “chai” in Chinese, means demolish.
A government plan worth US$440 million (Dh1.6 billion) calls for the relocation of 65,000 Uighur households, about 220,000 people, whose families have lived in the Old City for centuries. Until a few weeks ago, the area housed 40 per cent of the city’s residents in its labyrinth-like alleyways, where the naturalness of the life made it a popular tourist destination and one that was not ruined by tourism.
For centuries, children played on the cobblestone streets of the Old City, mothers standing in the doorways of their mud-brick dwellings chatting with neighbours, their faces covered by scarves. Bearded men wearing embroidered doppas (skullcaps) have walked daily to the many small neighbourhood mosques that pepper the area for prayers, passing by coppersmiths hammering pieces of metal into shiny pots, butchers cutting lamb in the open air and bakers slapping traditional flatbreads on to the sides of a tandoor, a makeshift clay oven.
According to the state media, the ancient district – which provided the exotic backdrop for Kabul in the movie The Kite Runner – chosen for its close resemblance to that vibrant Afghan city of the 1970s must be torn down because of poor drainage, unsound construction and susceptibility to earthquakes.
Irritated residents claim the government made no attempt to discuss the demolition plan with them or to consider other ways of dealing with the problems.
The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group, have long resented Chinese rule of Xinjiang, which they call East Turkestan. Wang Lequan, the Xinjiang party secretary, announced in March during a visit to Kashgar and Hotan that the two cities were at the “forefront of the fight against the three evil forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism”.
Some Uighurs argue the demolition is part of an orchestrated campaign by the Chinese government to destroy Uighur culture.
“The Old City in Kashgar represents the very essence of Uighur civilisation for thousands of years,” said Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the Uyghur American Association. “The Uighurs consider Kashgar the cradle of Uighur civilisation.
“By destroying Kashgar, the Chinese government will make all East Turkestan cities and towns look just like all other Chinese cities and towns along the east coast. Once Kashgar is destroyed, the unique Uighur and Central Asian character of East Turkestan will become history.”
There are also concerns about how people will earn a living once they are moved far from the centre of tourism – the government plan apparently does not include any mention of job creation. The Uighur community already faces high unemployment rates in the face of government-encouraged migration of Han Chinese from other parts of the country, who have an advantage in competing for jobs.
“If they are going to move to another location, then what they will do for a living?” Mrs Kadeer said. “The housing arrangements and the traditional craftsmanship businesses are interconnected in the old district of Kashgar.”
People in the Old City, as in other parts of Xinjiang, are afraid of speaking out, but snippets of conversations with old residents show widespread feelings of frustration combined with resignation. “It’s a headache for everyone,” said one 70-year-old man. “Mei banfa, mei banfa,” he continued in fluent Chinese. “There’s nothing we can do, nothing we can do.” He said his family had lived in the Old City for three generations.
A man sitting beside him pushed his two hands in a downward motion and mimicked government officials, who have told him to “move, move, move”.
Both men say they have no idea where exactly they will be moved to and they say no one has talked to them about compensation for their property.
A businessman sitting in a coffee shop on the edge of the Old City said people did not care about being compensated. “Money is not important to them right now,” he said. “For them what’s important is that they were born here and grew up here.”
He then expressed a common concern. “Living in a new apartment building, there is no community feeling; you don’t have contact with anyone. The doors in the Old City are always open and everyone knows each other. “I don’t want to leave,” he said, his face showing anger. Foreign experts play down arguments that the demolition is politically motivated.
“I don’t see it as a deliberate attack on Uighur culture, but part of China’s policy to modernise and develop,” said Dru Gladney, the president of the Pacific Basin Institute and an expert on Xinjiang. He said it had more to do with cultural insensitivity than politics.
“The problem is that there is very little plumbing; the electricity is dangerous and it’s in an earthquake zone,” Mr Gladney said. “So you can understand why planners would want to bulldoze it.”
Still, Mr Gladney conceded the loss of the area was sad – and common throughout China. “It does show a cultural insensitivity for Uighurs, who already feel embattled and threatened. Kashgar will never be the same without the quarter.”
Locals scoff at the claims about safety, saying that the damage to the local housing had been minimal in recent earthquakes and that these old structures had fared better than modern ones.
“There was an earthquake in 2004, but none of the houses in the Old City collapsed,” the businessman said. “People in the Old City believe that the old houses are stronger than modern buildings being built. They’ve survived for hundred of years.” Ronald Knapp, a professor emeritus at State University of New York, said there had been some loss of life from cave-ins of adobe structures over the centuries, but Sichuan’s problems seemed to have resulted “more from very poor ‘modern’ construction rather than the shortcomings of traditional practices”.
The government said it would turn a small remaining area into a tourist centre, where it would create an “international heritage scenery” to increase tourism. A recent statement by the Uyghur American Association said there was no indication yet as to who would benefit from a “Chinese-managed Kashgar Old City”. The association expressed a fear that the small remaining section “will take on the characteristics of an open-air museum of Uighur culture, where once a vibrant community lived”.