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Irishtimes:Reduced to rubble in the name of progress

Monday, June 8, 2009

The medieval streets of Kashgar are being bulldozed by Beijing planners, and locals fear their culture is being crushed, writes CLIFFORD COONAN .

DUST BILLOWS onto the medieval streets of Kashgar, clouding the view of the cutlers and wood-carvers across the road, as the last wall of an ancient house in this city on the Silk Road is destroyed.

Even before the dust has settled, workers wearing Chinese People’s Liberation Army uniforms start pulling down the blue hoarding around the site.

The Chinese government believes this ancient labyrinth of narrow streets, with its courtyard homes, mosques and open-fronted shops, is dangerous. Beijing believes the city is in need of modernisation if it is to take part in China’s economic miracle.

But nothing is simple in Kashgar, the original capital of globalisation and a real melting pot. Kashgar’s street signs are written in Arabic lettering as well as Chinese, and people on the streets are a mixture of Uighur and Han, along with Kazakhs, Pakistanis, Russians and Uzbeks.

Kashgar’s bazaars and mosques, Uighur language and clothes, Caucasian features and Turkish food mark China’s westernmost city out as part of central, not east, Asia. Here you are closer to the Mediterranean than you are Beijing.

Many local Uighurs – a Turkic ethnic group who share linguistic and cultural bonds with central Asia and who make up the majority of the population in the province of Xinjiang – fear their culture is being crushed to rubble along with the ancient masonry of Kashgar.

They are unhappy with the growing economic and political power of ethnic Han Chinese, and reject what they see as cultural imperialism from Beijing, much as Tibetans feel about what is happening in Tibet.

Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and Qianlong all came to Kashgar, where the north and south Silk Roads meet, some of them sacking the city in the process. But none have made such an impact on the historic city of 400,000 as the developers, who have orders from Beijing to tear down the Muslim enclave and build a modern symbol of Chinese influence in the restive Xinjiang province.

“This town was home to my parents, my grandparents and my grandparents’ parents,” said one shopkeeper as he packed up his wares for the day. Over half of Kashgar’s residents live in the Old City. The multi-million-euro relocation plan has already begun, and hundreds of families have been relocated to modern apartments in the new section of town. Large swathes of the Old City have already been reduced to rubble.

“We’ve been told our shop will be knocked down either this month or next month. It’s a disaster, though we will get compensation,” said another, looking left and right. Like everyone else in Kashgar, he is afraid to talk about what is happening, as the streets are full of police officers.

Kashgar is famous as a town full of spies, and there is the feeling of being constantly under surveillance, just as during the Great Game – a period of strategic manoeuvring in the early 20th century when Britain tried to counter Russia’s influence in the region and to protect India.

Down Kashgar’s alleys, hexagonal tiles on the street indicate that you are on a public thoroughfare, while rectangular stones indicate that you are crossing a private threshold.

The streets are full of life. One row of ancient shops is a boulevard of dentists, each with modern dentists’ chairs inside. Another street is home to knife-makers, with each of the cutlers selling identical wares. Further along the street is a sign showing the plan for an orderly development of apartments and shops. Efficient and utterly charmless.

China is expert at moving large numbers of people – in recent years, millions have been relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze river, and much of old Beijing was destroyed to make way for new buildings before the Olympics. However, many Uighurs are worried about what they are going to do once their shops are gone. Compensation is fine, but the loss of livelihood is difficult to replace.

The government’s line is that the Old City is too far away from adequate water for putting out fires, and that the structures are unsound given the numerous earthquakes that regularly strike the region – although the fact so many of the Old City’s buildings are still standing is testament to their ability to withstand most of what nature can throw their way.

Chinese rule has improved the local economy, but Uighurs fear for the damage to their culture. Bilingual education is seen as a good thing, as Mandarin is seen as the language of the future, but parents are perturbed that Uighur is slowly slipping off the curriculum.

Wu Dianting, professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal University’s school of geography, does not believe it is necessary to demolish the Old City, as it contains some good quality houses.

“The government could arrange for some Uighurs who live in dangerous houses to settle down in a new zone. Then they could reinforce and repair some houses. Some of the quality of the buildings is not good. Some houses are too close together, which is not convenient for first aid and fire fighting.

“The Old City needs protection as a whole,” said Prof Wu.

He Shuzhong, founder and chairman of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, said that while protecting the local population against the dangers of earthquakes is important, large-scale demolition is unnecessary.

“If people move out, the city would lose its soul. The local Uighurs are the spirit of the Old City. The government could repair those dangerous houses. But the rebuilding must use the original materials and techniques. The reinforcement must be conducted according to its original shape,” he said.

The Chinese are trying to contain what they say is a separatist movement in Xinjiang, and this week claimed to have unmasked eight terror cells.

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