9 December 2019
The Old City of Kashgar used to be its most important tourist attraction, bringing in about one million visitors a year. Photo: AFP
The Old City of Kashgar used to be its most important tourist attraction, bringing in about one million visitors a year. Photo: AFP

China destroys old city of Kashgar and builds university

From June 21-24, the Communist Party chief and governor of Guangdong province led a high-level delegation to the other end of China – Kashgar, the most westerly city in the country.

Since 2011, the province has been designated as the one to assist this city of 500,000 in the middle of the desert and the center of an Uyghur rebellion against Chinese rule.

During their visit, the delegation signed agreements to provide financial help for 19 projects; the most important was Kashgar University, to which Shenzhen will donate 1 billion yuan (US$161 million). It will be the first university in the south of Xinjiang.

Between 2009 and 2013, the government demolished 65,000 homes in the Old City of Kashgar and resettled 220,000 Uyghurs. Beatrice Kaldun, the cultural specialist of UNESCO in Beijing, called it “one of the black spots of heritage conservation” and compared it to the Taliban’s demolition of the giant sixth-century statues in Bamian, Afghanistan in 2001.

The redevelopment and the university symbolize the ongoing battle in the most Islamic place in China. Of its population, 82 percent are Uyghur, the highest proportion of any city in the country.

At the end of 2008, it contained 42 percent of the mosques in the region, including Id Kah, the largest in China, with 10,000 worshippers each Friday and a capacity for double that number. It is home to the tomb of Afaq Khoja, the holiest Muslim site in Xinjiang.

The southern part of the region is the home of most of those Uyghurs who have chosen to attack the state by violence, against government agents and innocent members of the public. Since last year, China has been facing its most serious threat from Islamic radicalism since 1949.

Shaken by the attacks, the government held its second Central Xinjiang Work Meeting in Beijing on May 28-29. Its theme was “social stability and long-term public order”.

This has translated into widespread arrests and sentencing of those suspected of involvement in the attacks and “religious extremism” and a realization of the urgent need to improve the economic conditions of the Uyghurs, especially those in the south.

The total Kashgar district covers 162,000 square kilometers, with a population of 4.15 million and a GDP last year of 42 billion yuan — a quarter of that of the regional capital, Urumqi, 169 billion yuan, with a population of 2.6 million and 14,000 square km.

Although the south is rich in oil, natural gas, coal, non-ferrous metals and iron ores and grows cotton and dried fruit, they are barely developed, and its infrastructure is poor. Outside investment is limited; most Han Chinese do not want or dare to live there.

Another reason for the poverty is the low educational level. It is this problem the new university aims to address, by providing tertiary education to Uyghurs and the chance of a better job in government, business or education.

During his visit, Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua said that they must promote labor-intensive industries, provide more jobs and increase the level of aid. Between 2011 and 2013, Guangdong provided 5.4 billion yuan to 361 projects, according to official figures.

Zhang Chunxian, party secretary of Xinjiang, said he hoped Kashgar would attract more Guangdong companies, talent, capital and technology and their investment would improve the lives of people. he also said Guangdong would work to attract Xinjiang companies.

In 2010, Beijing designated Kashgar as a special economic zone. It has a desert climate, with more than 2,700 hours of bright sunshine a year and is one of the driest cities on earth, with an average of 64 milimeters of rain a year. It has the most western railway station in China, connected to the rest of the national network by the Southern Xinjiang Railway in 1999. In December, a freight train running 488 km connected it to cities in the south Tarim basin, including Hotan.

Its Old City used to be its most important tourist attraction, bringing in about one million visitors a year. It was considered the best-preserved traditional Islamic city in Central Asia.

The government demolished it, saying that it was old and dilapidated, with most houses vulnerable to fire and earthquakes. More than two-thirds of the houses were razed and replaced with new buildings made to look old and equipped with central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity. The government paid for the first floor; residents had to pay for everything else.

After this gentrification, the Uyghurs who returned were the wealthier ones – mostly civil servants and merchants. Many former residents could not afford to go back and were re-housed in drab apartment blocks on the outskirts, far from their traditional way of life.

For them, the demolition of the old city was a physical symbol of Beijing’s attempt to destroy their culture and way of life. The university will, on the other hand, bring their children closer to the mainstream Han Chinese culture and way of thinking.

Can Beijing win the hearts and minds of the people of Kashgar?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.