Ignoring protests from preservationists abroad, the Chinese government bulldozed most of Kashgar's historic old city 2009, destroying 85 percent of the labyrinthine alleys of mud-brick houses in the name of earthquake safety. About 200,000 people, almost all Uighurs, were being relocated to bland, modern apartment buildings in the suburbs. Entire Uighur neighborhoods of mud-brick homes, where Uighur shopkeepers have lived and worked for hundreds of years, were btorn down. Left behind were piles of brick and rubble, houses without roofs. Rows of brick-fronted shops were left on the main streets to hide the destruction behind them.

About 220,000 people, or 42 percent of the city's residents, live in the old town. Houses marked for destruction were marked with an ominous-looking Chinese character written in red with a circle drawn around it. The character, pronounced chai in Chinese, means demolish.

Jane MaCartney wrote in the The Times of London, “Bulldozers are already crashing through the packed-mud walls of centuries-old homes. Yellow-helmeted workers toss bricks into wheelbarrows as they clear the rubble. Walls throughout the town are stencilled with signs exhorting residents to support the makeover to prevent the damage wrought by last year’s massive earthquake in southwestern Sichuan province that killed 90,000 people. [Source: Jane MaCartney, The Times, June 18, 2009]

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: “Some residents say they also prefer a more modern environment. The thousand-year-old design that gives the Old City its charm often precludes basics like garbage pickup, sewers and fire hydrants.” In the mayor’s view, “demolition will give the Uighurs a better life and spare them from disaster in one fell swoop. All that said, there is a certain aura of forcible eviction about the demolition, an urgency that fear of earthquakes does not completely explain. The city is offering cash bonuses to residents who move out early — about $30 for those who vacate within 20 days; $15 if they move in a month. Homes are razed as soon as they become empty, giving some alleys a gap-tooth look.”[Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 28, 2009]

From a cultural and historical perspective, this plan of theirs is stupid, Wu Lili, the managing director of the Beijing Cultural Protection Center, a nongovernmental group devoted to historic preservation, told the New York Times. From the perspective of the locals, it’s cruel. Efforts by preservationist and overseas Uighurs to halt the development have largely been ineffective. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 28, 2009]

Redevelopment Plan for Kashgar’s Old Town

A $448 million plan to move about 50,000 residents out of the old city and into modern apartment buildings kicked off in February 2009 with the first 100 families moving into government housing. At that stage community service officers visited families one by one, urging them to come to their offices and discuss compensation plans for moving out.[Source: Maureen Fan, Washington Post, March 24, 2009]

The project began abruptly in 2009 soon after China’s central government said it would spend $584 billion on public works to combat the global financial crisis. It would complete a piecemeal dismantling of old Kashgar that began decades ago. The city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, has largely been torn down. In the 1980s, the city paved the surrounding moat to create a ring highway. Then it opened a main street through the old town center. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 28, 2009]

According to the plan 66 percent to 85 percent of Kashgar’s Old City will be bulldozed. Alleys will be covered over. Narrow roads will be widened to 20 feet under the government's plan. In place of the old Old Old City will be a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture to preserve the Uighur culture, Kashgar’s vice mayor, Xu Jianrong, told the New York Times. When the plan is complete Kashgar will look a lot more like a typical Chinese city or town.

There are also concerns about how people will earn a living once they are moved far from the center of tourism — the government plan apparently does not include any mention of job creation. The Uighur community already faces high unemployment rates. Shopowners moving to distant apartment will be forced to close their shops, their only source of income.

Kashgar’s New Old Town

The government said it would turn a small remaining area into a tourist center, 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.

What will remain of old Kashgar is unclear. Kashgar’s mayor told the New York Times that important buildings and areas of the Old City have already been included in the country’s special preservation list and would not be disturbed. No archaeologists monitor the razings, he said, because the government already knows everything about old Kashgar.

The state official Wang Zhengrong, said the old city will be “protected, managed, and developed” with the aim of “creating international heritage scenery.” This will increase income from tourism, says Wang, who adds that under the plans tourists will still be able to view “minority lifestyle and architectural characteristics.” [Source:Henryk Szadziewski, Opendemocracy.net, April 03, 2009]

Henryk Szadziewski wrote in Opendemocracy.net, “In addition, the changes appear to involve new management of the old city. There have been rumors circulating online that the local government in Kashgar has offered a group of Han Chinese from Wenzhou the right to administer the area around the heart of the old city, the ancient Id-Kah mosque. In addition, oversight of the Appaq Khoja Mazar - a place of religious significance to Uighurs, though outside the old city itself - has it is said been offered to a Han Chinese company called Jinkun. Whether these rumors are true, there is a genuine concern as to who the real beneficiaries are from the “residents' resettlement project.”

New Housing for Residents of Kashgar’s Old Town

In the Old Town Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Three of the Old City’s seven sectors are judged unfit for Uighur architecture and will be rebuilt with decidedly generic apartment buildings. Two thousand other homes will be razed to build public plazas and schools. Poor residents, who live in the smallest homes, already are being permanently moved to boxy, concrete public housing on Kashgar’s outskirts. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 28, 2009]

The old houses are being replaced with local-style brick buildings with steel reinforcement and concrete highrises. One Uighur resident old Reuters, “The thing is these buildings are what makes Kashgar unique. They are nowhere else in the world. So it’s a shame to tear them down and replace them with this.” [Source: Lucy Hornby, Reuters, July 2010]

Although the city offers the displaced residents the opportunity to build new homes on the sites of their old ones, some also complain that the proposed compensation does not pay for the cost of rebuilding.

The relocated areas are eight or nie kilometers form the Old Town, Some of the new apartments there sitting in the desert are not so popular. These include square stone buildings marked “earthquake resistant housing” that sit empty among planted poplars. Not all are opposed to moving on. One elderly Muslim merchant in an embroidered skullcap told the Times of London “The new houses are much cleaner. They have a bathroom and a kitchen. It’s good to have proper sanitation.” He said will still come down to the Old Town to gossip with friends around the main Id Kah Mosque. His son shrugs about the prospect of life in a block of flats. What can you do? What can you do? We have no choice. [Source: Jane MaCartney, The Times, June 18, 2009]

Reaction to the Destruction of Kashgar’s Old Town

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 city counters that Uighur residents have been consulted at every step of planning. Residents mostly say they are summoned to meetings at which eviction timetables and compensation sums are announced. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 28, 2009]

Some Uighurs argue the demolition is part of an orchestrated campaign by the Chinese government to destroy Uighur culture. A businessman told the National that 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.[Source: Paul Mooney, The National, May 3, 2009]

One 48-year-old Uighur woman told the Washington Post, “They want us to live like Chinese people but we will never agree. If we move into the government apartments, there are no courtyards and no sun. Women will need to cover up to go outside and we will have to spend money to finish decorating our rooms. This is our land. We have not bought it from the government.” A 60-year-old man said, “If the government gives me money, I will go. Everybody is unhappy about this, but government is government, we can do nothing,” he said.[Source: Maureen Fan, Washington Post, March 24, 2009]

One long-time Kashgar resident told National Geographic, “I pray. When I worship, I ask Allah, “rescue me my house.” He said he was born in the house as was his father and grandfather after his great grandfather built the house on family land. “I have two sons,” he said, “You don’t understand our rage. In the Middle East there are human bombs, who connect their bodies with bombs. But with our rage, we don’t need bombs, connected. We ourselves explode.”

Many of the old houses are small and the narrow roads they sit on are inconvenient. One Uighur resident told Reuters, ‘some people, especially from the smaller homes, might think it’s a good deal. They get a new place, electricity, all the conveniences. Others, especially if they have a 120-square-meter house, are unhappy. I’d say 80 or 90 percent of the people are satisfied.

One elderly woman in a large two-story house told the New York Times, “In this kind of house, many, many generations can live, one by one. But if we move to an apartment, every 50 or 70 years, that apartment is torn down again. This is the biggest problem in our lives. How can our children inherit an apartment?”

Jane MaCartney wrote in the The Times of London, “Residents of the old city are reluctant to talk. Their fear is palpable. One gestures down the street. The police are here. We must be careful. In a house destined to disappear, a young girl slams the door into her rose-filled courtyard on visitors who ask about her home. [Source:Jane MaCartney, The Times, June 18, 2009]

Government Position on Destruction of Kashgar’s Old Town

The government has used the excuse that mud-brick structures in Kashgar are unsafe in earthquakes and need to be torn down. Officials say some houses are too far away from fire hydrants and that the old city is dangerously overcrowded. While the earthen homes have stood for centuries, the deadly earthquake that hit Sichuan province last May only added urgency to the project. “Because many houses were built privately without any approval, the life of residents is not convenient and the capability against earthquakes and fire is weak,” a local state-run news report said recently. “Our target is every family has a house, every family has employed members and the economy will be developed.” [Source: Maureen Fan, Washington Post, March 24, 2009] Kashgar officials do have good reason to worry about earthquakes. In October 2008 a 6.8 magnitude quake struck barely 100 miles away. In 1902, an 8.0-magnitude quake, one of the 20th century’s biggest, killed 667 residents.

A Chinese government official told Reuters, “The old town of Kashgar is an important cultural city that represents Uighur culture. Unfortunately, houses are very crowded, with families of five squeezed into eight square meters...The construction is made of post and panel, wood and brick. The buildings are dilapidated and cannot resist earthquakes.” He said the government’s five-year plan for the Old Tow to complete 28 housing blocks, each with 220 household to accommodate 60,000 people ‘shows the Communist Party’s concern for minorities.” Another official said, “To equate dilapidated houses with Uighur culture shows they don’t understand Uighur culture, indeed they disrespect it.”[Source: Lucy Hornby, Reuters, July 2010]

Locals Respond to Government Position on Destruction of Kashgar’s Old Town

“Many 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.” [Source: Paul Mooney, The National, May 3, 2009]

Jane MaCartney wrote in the The Times of London, “One old man, his beard white, taps a mud-and-straw wall. These houses have withstood earthquakes for 2,000 years. They have wood inside to absorb the shock. He gestures to a renovated building next door. People are supposed to use these hard bricks. But look at the cement. There are gaps and it’s poor quality. Maybe this would fall more quickly. [Source: Jane MaCartney, The Times, June 18, 2009]

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: “On Kashgar television, a nightly 15-minute infomercial hawks the project like ginsu knives, mixing dire statistics on seismic activity with scenes of happy Uighurs dancing in front of their new concrete apartments. Never has such a great event, such a major event happened to Kashgar, the announcer intones. He boasts that the new buildings will be difficult to match in the world and that citizens will completely experience the care and warmth of the party toward the Uighur ethnic minority. The infomercial also notes that Communist Party officials from Kashgar to Beijing are so edgy over the prospect of an earthquake that it is disturbing their rest.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 28, 2009]

Reasons for Destroying Kashgar’s Old Town

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “The official narrative of the modernization project justified tearing down 65,000 homes and resettling 220,000 Uyghur residents as crucial to improving their lives. “Houses in the Old City of Kashgar are mostly old and dilapidated, extremely vulnerable to earthquakes and fire,” said a 2010 report by Xinhua, the state news agency, that was widely republished in the Chinese government-controlled media. “The renovation of the Old City zone in Kashgar is a project that complied with the wishes of the people,” the report claimed. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, March 5, 2014 |+|]

Michael Wines of the New York Times wrote: “Chinese officials have offered somewhat befuddling explanations for their plans.” Kashgar’s mayor — calls Kashgar a prime example of rich cultural history and at the same time a major tourism city in China. Yet the demolition plan would reduce to rubble Kashgar’s principal tourist attraction, a magnet for many of the million-plus people who visit each year. China supports an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks as United Nations World Heritage sites — a powerful draw for tourists, and apowerful incentive for governments to preserve historical areas. But Kashgar is missing from China’s list of proposed sites. One foreign official who refused to be identified for fear of damaging relations with Beijing said the Old City project had unusually strong backing high in the government.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 28, 2009]

Some have suggested that the reason that Beijing is razing the old neighborhoods is that Uighur activities are difficult to monitor in the maze of old streets and houses in the Old City and getting rid of them would make it easier to watch over the population and keep them from organizing. Uighurs don’t discuss the matter out of fear of being imprisoned.

Henryk Szadziewski wrote in Opendemocracy.net, with the fact that former old-city residents so far outside the Old City “it is difficult to avoid concluding that the resettlement of Uighurs is part of a policy by the Chinese authorities to dilute Uighur culture by taking control of how Uighur communities are arranged. This control permits closer management of Uighur activity in new regimented living arrangements, and forces on resettled Uyghurs a form of indebtedness where none existed before. [Source:Henryk Szadziewski, Opendemocracy.net, April 03, 2009]

Other 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 modernize and develop, said Dru Gladney, the president of the Pacific Basin Institute and an expert on Xinjiang. He told the National 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.[Source: Paul Mooney, The National, May 3, 2009]

Results of Kashgar Redevelopment

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “Visitors walking through the mud-brick rubble and yawning craters where close-packed houses and bazaars once stood could be forgiven for thinking that the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar had been irrevocably lost to the wrecking ball. A billboard looming over the ruins tries to counter that impression: “Inherit and preserve the historical culture to showcase a brand new Kashgar.” The Chinese authorities set out five years ago to modernize Kashgar’s fabled Old City district while promising to preserve its dense Casbah-like charms. But the results underscore the growing divide between the government” and the Uyghurs that live there. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, March 5, 2014 |+|]

“For many Uyghurs, the demolition of Kashgar’s Old City is a physical symbol of the Chinese government’s efforts to destroy their cultural identity. More than two-thirds of the centuries-old houses there have been razed and replaced with new buildings made to look old and equipped with central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity. The government pays for building a new house’s first floor; residents must pay for everything else. Some residents are pleased. “Even though the neighborhood has changed, we’re much happier with our new house,” said a dressmaker who identified herself only as Ayesha, standing in her new kitchen. Though none of the arabesque filigree details of her family’s 500-year-old residence were preserved, she said, her family incorporated traditional design elements into the new doors and windows. “It’s a lot safer,” she added. |+|

“But many of the former residents could not afford what is essentially gentrification by government fiat, and they have not returned to the neighborhood. The Uyghurs who have come back tend to be the wealthier ones, government employees and successful merchants whose economic well-being depends on their cooperation with the Han-dominated authorities. The rest have been scattered to drab apartment blocks on the city’s outskirts, far from their traditional way of life. Local officials silenced any complaints and introduced a so-called zero-tolerance system to keep residents from airing their grievances to higher authorities. |+|

“Out of earshot of the tour guides and police minders who invariably follow visiting foreign reporters, some Uyghurs say the government has shown little interest in preserving the city’s architectural heritage. At the end of a dusty alley, an aging Uyghur woman eagerly welcomed visitors into her 300-year-old courtyard home. Built by a wealthy silk-trading ancestor, the house has seen better days. In the main room, now used for storage, a naked bulb illuminated diamond-shaped mosaics of green and white tile, framing recessed antique shelves with foliated arches. But the raw logs propping up the ceiling were a more recent addition, installed after construction work by her neighbors caused long cracks in the room’s walls. Officials offered to help finance repairs but refused to replicate the original craftsmanship. “If it was rebuilt, all the beautiful history would be lost,” she said. Eventually they decided to leave the house in its current condition as a draw for tourists. |+|

“What remains of the Old City is rapidly being turned into an ethnic theme park, with a $5 admission charge. The Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group has leased the area from the neighborhood Communist Party committee and is marketing it as a “living Uyghur folk museum.” According to Xu Lin, vice president of the company’s Kashgar branch, 20 households have signed contracts to open up their homes for tourists, earning around $8,300 annually from the sale of food and trinkets. “Now every family wants to join,” Ms. Xu said. She added that the company hoped the Old City might one day be designated a World Heritage site by Unesco. |+|

Those hopes, though, have crumbled along with the old houses. Beatrice Kaldun, Unesco’s cultural specialist in Beijing, called the redevelopment of Kashgar “one of the black spots of heritage conservation.” Recalling a mission to Kashgar in 2009 to meet officials and inspect the government’s construction plans, Ms. Kaldun said she was shocked by the scale of destruction. “It was like a desert in the city,” she said. Though she made delicate diplomatic requests that the authorities respect local people and building customs, Chinese officials used her trip in a propaganda campaign to imply that Unesco had endorsed the redevelopment. Ms. Kaldun rejected that assertion. She likened the razing of the Old City to the Taliban’s demolition of the huge sixth-century Buddha statues in Bamian, Afghanistan, in 2001, saying it was too late to save either one. “Nothing can stop this train anymore.” |+|

Uighurs Squeezed Out of Kashgar and Central Asian Trade by Chinese

Although the Uighurs, thanks of their location at the Silk Road, were traditionally traders, they have been squeezed out by tough Chinese policies that have made it difficult to obtain passports. "If you go to Bishkek, you'll see maybe 50 Uighurs, but thousands of Chinese. They're making easy money,"a 35-year-old businessman told the Los Angeles Times. Like most Uighurs in Kashgar he would not permit his name to be used because of the perils of criticizing the Chinese government. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2010]

Until a decade ago, 90 percent of Kashgar's 355,000 permanent residents were Uighurs, but activists suspect that the Uighur population has dropped to 70 percent with the migration of about 150,000 Han Chinese to Kashgar.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Much of the property in Kashgar is now owned by investors from Wenzhou, a city near Shanghai whose entrepreneurs are considered modern-day Marco Polos for their love of exploring and tapping the wealth of exotic realms. Real estate agents from Kashgar were quoted by the Xinjiang Business Daily saying that prices for apartments went up as much as 30 percent and commercial property as much as 40 percent from March to July 2010.”

"Before locals bought apartments just for themselves. Now more and more speculators are coming in," one real estate sales manager told the newspaper. Shortly after the article ran July 1, the General Administration for Press and Publications forced the newspaper and one other that reported on the real estate boom to run retractions and pay fines of $4,200 each for stories that "caused serious negative impact."

Kashgar to Become a Special Economic Zone

Kashgar is slated to become a special economic zone. The economic zone, like its inspiration, Shenzhen, will feature tax breaks, investment incentives and easing of regulatory requirements for new businesses. Along with the central government, the city of Shenzhen is sponsoring the Kashgar project, transferring $1.5 billion this year alone to support the new zone. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2010]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Chinese officials hope the economic zone status will do for Kashgar what it did for Shenzhen, the South China Sea fishing village that 30 years ago launched China's transformation into a manufacturing superpower. Whereas Shenzhen's wares head by sea to Korea, Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States, Kashgar is viewed increasingly as the launch pad into Pakistan and India, as well as some of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”

"We want to restore Kashgar to the position it had in the days of the Silk Road," Wang Ning, an economist with the government-run Academy of Social Sciences in Xinjiang, told the Los Angeles Times. "The plan is that by 2020 we should close the gap between east and west and allow the west to share in the prosperity of the east."

“The signs of change are already visible,” Demick wrote. “Developers from China's east coast are snapping up land in the area, residents say. Concealed behind a row of graceful poplar trees along the main road to the airport, newly erected green wire fences delineate plots of land slated for development: a factory that makes instant ramen noodles for export to Pakistan and Tajikistan, a warehouse for wheat also headed for central Asia. Tents for construction workers are pitched near empty lots behind the Kashgar Central and Southern Asia Industrial Park, which according to the state press, is being expanded from two square miles to 60. Even on a Sunday afternoon, crews were leveling an access road. "This land used to be desert. Nobody was interested in it," said a 35-year-old local businessman. "Now rich people from the east are coming and buying everything they can.... They buy the land. They put in roads. Then they put a wall around it."

For China, Kashgar is a modern-day version of the wild west, a remote and exotic destination far closer to Afghanistan (160 miles) than to Beijing (2,100 miles),” Demick wrote. The first direct flights were introduced only in September 2010. “The city is a convenient shopping hub for Central Asian businessmen, who arrive on tour buses and leave with vinyl shopping bags stuffed with Chinese-made wristwatches, DVD players, cellphones and athletic shoes to sell back home. With the exception of some artisanal knives and rugs, almost all the merchandise today is manufactured on China's east coast, something that should change with the economic zone status.

However, the Shenzhen phenomenon won't be easily replicated. The routes to western border crossings out of China run through harsh desert and wind-swept mountain passes frequently closed by weather and political turmoil.

Local Suspicions Special Economic Zone Development in Kashgar

Many Kashgar residents are suspicious of the whole scheme, knowing that economic development in China often helps others more than it helps them. A 35-year-old businessman told the Los Angeles Times. The economic zone, he said, may "help some of our young people get jobs in factories at low salaries, but the big money is not for us."

Dru Gladney, an expert on Xinjiang at Pomona College, told the Los Angeles Times Uighur economists believe job preference should be given to people with local hukous, or residency permits, so Kashgar's Uighurs as well as longtime Han Chinese residents get first crack at jobs. But he is pessimistic."If these guys are coming from Wenzhou to invest in Kashgar from outside, they're going to hire people from Wenzhou. That's how it works in China," Gladney said

"It is all part of a wholesale attack on the Uighur identity," Nury Turkel, a Kashgar-born lawyer and activist who lives in Washington, D.C., told the Los Angeles Times. He believes the economic zone will be more of the same, with the best opportunities accruing to Han Chinese outsiders. "The Uighurs can't even get loans from banks. How are they going to open businesses?"

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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