This was presented at a conference organized by the Office of Frieda Brepoels MEP, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization and the Belgian Uyghur Organization. Further information on the conference can be found here, where a link to the slides accompanying the presentation can be found. A report on the conference can be read in Observe China and here.
The City of Kashgar: An Oasis of the Silk Road on the Brink of Extinction
The Importance of Kashgar for Turkic Uyghur Identity
[NOT FOR CITATION]
Henryk Szadziewski, Uyghur Human Rights Project
European Parliament, Brussels, 27 January 2011
Good morning. I want to thank the organizers for their hard work in getting this important conference off the ground. It is a true demonstration of the worldwide concern for Uyghur issues.
Buried in the sands of the vast Taklamakan Desert are the ruins of several Silk Road cities, where an ancient civilization became the hub of Central Asian culture and learning. These lost cities will soon be joined by the old city of Kashgar should the Chinese authorities succeed in their plan to bulldoze and bury it in rubble. With the demolition of Kashgar old city, the Chinese government will destroy one of the few vestiges of Turkic Uyghur culture and a testament to centuries of Uyghur history. Unlike the fabled cities of the Silk Road, Kashgar old city faces its destruction not to the forces of nature, but to the politics of assimilation.
Throughout its history, Kashgar has hosted a mix of peoples, religions and languages, among which the Uyghurs have been for centuries at the center, giving this city its character and flavor. Kashgar old city is as important to the Uyghurs as Jerusalem is to Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is a physical embodiment of the Turkic Uyghur identity, signifying its past, present and future. This is the city of great Uyghur scholars such as Yusuf Has Hajib [SLIDE 2] and Mahmud al-Kashgari [SLIDE 3]; of modern Uyghurs who earn their living, go to school and worship within its buildings [SLIDE 4]; and of city planners who learn how to build the next generation of integrated communities.
Kashgar has a long and layered past. 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. Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo all visited Kashgar, and today, the city’s bazaars and unique architecture draws admiring visitors from around the world seeking to experience the diversity of life with which this planet is so blessed.
In February 2009, Chinese authorities announced a “residents’ resettlement” project that aims to demolish five square kilometers of Kashgar’s eight square kilometers of old city, and resettle 45,000 households by 2014 [SLIDE 5]. At its conclusion, the demolition will affect between 65,000 households. This is an estimated 220,000 people representing about 42% of Kashgar’s total population. According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), the budget for the demolition is a considerable US$4.4 billion, which has been allocated from central and regional government coffers. The Chinese authorities stated motivation for the demolition is public safety [SLIDE 6]. Authorities considered the 65,000 houses in Kashgar’s old city were suffering from poor drainage and were vulnerable to collapse from earthquakes. Residents of the old city would therefore be moved to newly constructed buildings up to eight kilometers away from the old city area [SLIDE 7].
The demolition of heritage sites integral to the Turkic Uyghur identity, such as the Xanliq Madrasa, is emblematic of the Chinese government’s approach to the cultural rights of the Uyghur people. One of the madrasa’s most famous students is said to have been Mahmud Kashgari, an 11th-century Uyghur scholar and writer who occupies a central place in both Uyghur and Turkish history. His seminal work, Compendium of the Language of the Turks, was the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages. The 1,000th anniversary of his birth was nationally celebrated in 2008 in Turkey. The Xanliq Madrasa itself was the first in East Turkestan to combine Islamic and scientific curricula, introducing a trend of similar schools with modern teaching methods in the region.
Despite this rich cultural and intellectual legacy, the madrasa was torn down in June 2009. Kashgar vice-mayor Xu Jianrong stated in June 2009 that archeologists would not monitor the demolitions because the government already knows all there is to know about the old city. That the Uyghur people themselves have been unable to conclude what is, and what is not, important to their cultural heritage illustrates a decision-making process that has removed old city residents from determining the future of their community.
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 Turkic Uyghur material culture, architecture, and human community. What makes the process all the more insidious is that is being accompanied by a relentless marginalization of Uyghurs in their own homeland as the demographic increase of Han Chinese is reinforced by a tightening of political control. The Chinese government argues that the demolition is necessary to the modernization of the Uyghur people. Modernization is important in the development of all cultures, but the Chinese government neglects 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; nor whether there was an alternative to outright demolition of homes that have so long withstood climatic and political changes.
[SLIDE 8] The exclusion of Uyghurs from any real participation in shaping the “residents’ resettlement” project exemplifies the systemic discrimination they suffer from Chinese state policy. The key feature of this policy is a rigorously top-down approach to development planning in the region that effectively denies Uyghurs a 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 authoritarian project are revealed.
The case of language-planning policy is but one example and a pivotal one if Turkic Uyghur identity is to flourish. Here, the Chinese government is phasing out Uyghur as a language of instruction in favor of Mandarin Chinese. A move justified in China’s official modernization 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’s schools.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.
[SLIDE 9] The Chinese government’s reasoning for the demolition has received short shrift from many quarters; most notably from Han Chinese people. Wu Dianting, a professor at Beijing Normal University, as well as Wu Lili, of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, have both gone on the record as stating that the resettlement of old city Uyghurs is not only “cruel” because of the destruction to the Uyghur lifestyle, but also unnecessary. Professor Wu believes that reinforcing and repairing existing housing could better serve the large amount of money used to destroy Uyghur homes. Indeed, the new apartment blocks to which Kashgar old city residents are being moved have been shown to be already crumbling by Australian journalist Stephen McDonell in a July 2009 report.
CECC traces a pattern of Chinese authorities’ behavior that downplays the necessity to preserve the Turkic Uyghur identity of the old city in favor of outright demolition. In a July 2009 report, CECC states that at an August 2008 meeting on so called reconstruction of the old city “officials indicated that efforts to preserve existing structures would be minimal.” The report goes on to say that “no officials from cultural heritage offices were reported to attend [the August 2008 meeting].”
[SLIDE 10] The refusal to consider a broader preservation of the old city not only belittles the importance of Turkic Uyghur identity, but it is also contradictory to regulations and laws protecting physical cultural heritage in the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government’s designation in 1986 of Kashgar as a national-level historic and cultural city should have protected it from demolition under the Historic Cities Regulation and the Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage. As CECC points out “[b]oth the Historic Cities Regulation and article 14 of the broader Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage call for preservation efforts for designated historic areas, and article 28 of the Historic Cities Regulation specifically forbids new construction or expansion in the centers of historic districts”. Nevertheless, Chinese legal instruments fail to specifically “detail how or by whom ‘preservation value’…[is] defined, calling into question the capacity of Chinese law for effective cultural heritage preservation, including as it accords with ethnic minorities’ right to define and protect their culture, and the state’s obligation to secure this right.”
While the Chinese government has proposed that China’s Silk Road locations be included in a UNESCO World Heritage List, Kashgar was glaringly omitted from China’s application, though Kashgar was arguably the most important Silk Road crossroads within the territory of present-day China [SLIDE 11].
The shaky domestic legal foundations upon which the demolition is premised may be the cause for an extended local government campaign to convince old city residents of the benefits of the residents’ resettlement project. An article posted on a Kashgar-based news website on July 9, 2008 discusses the initial launch of propaganda work aimed at old city residents. The article notes the creation of a propaganda team and a social stability team, and states that municipal cadres were directed to begin entering old city residents’ homes on July 1, 2008 to engage in propaganda work and convince residents of the significance, motivations and benefits of the demolition project. It explains that cadres were to make use of their shared language and culture with local people to convince them of the project’s benefits, and that they must not miss a single street, household or person among the 65,000 households and 220,000 residents.
A February 2009 working paper, issued by the municipal office overseeing the demolition project and published in a report dated May 31, 2009, states that “those cadres with a mind to create conflict, or who refuse to cooperate in their work, or who don’t fulfill their duties and obligations, will be removed from office on the spot, without exception.” It asserts that propaganda work is a “serious political issue”.
The integrated and organic community that is Kashgar old city is a place where modern and traditional Turkic Uyghur identity can flourish with diminished interference from Chinese authorities [SLIDE 12]. Coppersmiths hammer away making bowls, pans and jugs, which will sit on the shelves of cool courtyard-fronted homes. Sellers of Uyghur candy push their carts in the heat of the day. Women, their heads covered with brown-colored gauzed blankets, move from market-stall to market-stall discussing the cost of spices and cuts of mutton hanging on shaded meat-hooks. Vendors selling hand-sewn Uyghur skull-caps and brightly decorated knives watch donkey-cart drivers as they navigate the streets and the people. Minarets overlook over the scene, reminding Kashgaris that in addition to trade, Islam is also an influence on their daily routines [SLIDE 13]. Then there is the other Kashgar, one firmly rooted in the 21st century, of cell phones, cars, the latest fashions, and mass-produced consumer goods, in which Kashgaris are also bank-tellers, university professors and auto-mechanics, which moves seamlessly through this traditional picture. Turkic Uyghur identity does not need modernization as defined by the Chinese government; it is modernizing itself, with all the conflicts that process entails, but in its own image.
[SLIDE 14] However, the proposed regimented communities that are springing up on the fringes of Kashgar to resettle old city residents will do away with this natural progression and break up this compelling clash of traditional and modern Turkic Uyghur life. The refuge that Kashgar old city provides for Turkic Uyghur culture to thrive will be a memory. A Uyghur quoted in a May, 2009 New York Times report said “[l]iving 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”.
The new regimented living arrangements are not coincidental as apartment block style living makes Uyghur activity easier to monitor as opposed to the labyrinth that is the old city. The surveillance cameras that oversee the entrances to all new apartment blocks should leave no doubt that the residents’ resettlement project has the benefit of being able to keep an eye on the Uyghurs within. This new housing will create indebtedness between old city Uyghurs and the Chinese government where none existed before.
The demolition and redevelopment will make Kashgar indistinguishable from the Chinese cities of east. The look and feel of Kashgar will be less foreign, less threatening and more palatable for the Chinese investors and migrants the government needs to reinforce the integration of the Uyghur region into the Chinese fold, and the assimilation of the Uyghur people into the Chinese nation.
[SLIDE 15] New opportunities have opened for predominately Han Chinese construction and real estate companies. As the old city demolition progresses, according to New York Times reporter Michael Wines “[i]n its place will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues.” A salesman at a new development in Kashgar, was quoted by the New York Times in a November 2009 report as saying “[w]e can’t build apartments fast enough for demand…[c]ome back here in five years, and you won’t recognize the place.” The same report states that “[w]ith few exceptions, the bricklayers, plumbers and electricians are Han, as are about 90 percent of the buyers”.
When questioned “why the promotional materials [for the new developments] did not include Uighur-language text, the salesman…was frank. ‘What’s the point?...They can’t afford this place.’”
The benefits of the tourism industry from the remains of Kashgar old city that according to state official Wang Zhengrong would be “protected, managed, and developed” are also moving out of the hands of Uyghurs. [SLIDE 16] The annual value of tourism to the Kashgar economy is approximately US$94 million, and management of sections of the old city, currently subject to admission fees, falls to the Zhongkun Corporation from east China. Wang added that under the plans, tourists would still be able to view “minority lifestyle and architectural characteristics” making the old city take on the characteristics of an open-air museum of Turkic Uyghur culture, where once a vibrant community lived.
For decades under Chinese Communist Party administration, the demolition of Kashgar old city has been going on piecemeal. [SLIDE 17] The 35-foot high city walls have been demolished, and in 2001, 2,500 relocations occurred in a redevelopment of the Id Kah Square area of the old city. The latest assault may well be its death knell.
While loss of Kashgar old city is symbolic of Turkic Uyghurs struggling to maintain their cultural identity in the face of intense Chinese pressure to assimilate; it is also a terrible loss to world heritage, which makes the demolition an international issue. The disappearance of unique architecture, the dispersal of a distinct community and the assimilation of a people are all concerns for those who value diversity in the modern world. This is therefore not just an Uyghur issue. It is at every level a global issue too.
Kashgar is not only a symbol for the cultural survival of the Turkic Uyghur identity; it is also not only a refuge from the extensive monitoring of Uyghur activity, or a major site of global heritage that should be saved, but it is also a vibrant and living organic community of people who have the right to protect their families and homes. It may be too late for the Turkic Uyghur culture of Kashgar, but there is still time for people elsewhere to learn the lessons of their dispossession.