The Uighur Dilemma

Kashgar stands at the very western edge of China – an oasis city that has long provided relief for travellers on the ancient Silk Road.

Parts of the city have stood for more than 2000 years and within its labyrinth, Uighur traditions have played largely unchanged over time. It’s a living history attracting hordes of tourists every year.

But Beijing is bringing in the bulldozers - knocking down great swathes of the old town – because it says there is an increasing risk of devastation from earthquake. Officials say they’re worried about the safety of the people who live there.

The Uighurs though are a Muslim majority in the city and the region and many residents suspect other motives. They believe Beijing’s agenda is to push the Uighurs out of the alley ways and corners of old Kashgar and into more manageable and uniform accommodation where they can be monitored and better kept in check.

China correspondent Stephen McDonell has managed to gain extraordinary access to Kashgar, its residents and local leadership, to assess the motives behind the demolition program and to explore more broadly the strategic security problems Beijing is trying to contain and cauterise.


McDonell manages to gain entry to a highly sensitive security zone outside Kashgar for a bigger picture. Across the mountains in one direction Pakistan is locked in battle with the Taliban in another Afghanistan is facing the same extremist threat. The Chinese government holds grave concerns that Muslim terrorism could find fertile ground here. The Foreign Correspondent team happens upon a full scale anti-terror exercise and films from a distance.


But there’s also the developing domestic friction. In early July violence erupted between the Uighurs and the otherwise dominant Han Chinese – many of whom are resettling Uighur territory.


In the region's capital Urumqi, it's estimated as many as 200 people were killed and many more injured. About one thousand were arrested after troops moved in.



MCDONELL: The Taklamatan Desert in Western China is 337,000 square kilometres of arid, dramatic wasteland. It’s the hottest place in China which, for many an emperor, was a natural barrier to potential invaders. Yet for hundreds of years, camel trains would brave this desolate expanse. Because traders carried Chinese silk to sell to the Western world, this became known as “the Silk Road”. The camel trains took this dangerous journey knowing that if they could make it across the Taklamatan, there was relief on the other side.


They would arrive in Kashgar. The old city looks pretty similar today to how it would have been centuries ago. Tens of thousands of people still live in this romantic, crumbling rabbit warren.

At street level you can really feel the history oozing out of these walls. Imagine what it was like for travellers in the past. After spending weeks in the desert heat, they would arrive here and meander around these cool alleyways, tasting again the fruits of civilisation.


Kashgar is the cultural capital for the Uighurs. Though they look and sound like Turks, these people are officially Chinese and ten million of them live here in China’s far Western Xinjiang Province. Apart from their language, music and clothes, the Uighurs are known for their mercantile spirit and it’s there in abundance at Kashgar’s Sunday livestock market.


The Uighurs are Sunni Muslims. Throughout history their homeland has been in and out of Beijing’s control. It became part of Communist China when the People’s Liberation Army entered the region in 1949. For the many Uighurs who’ve never accepted being Chinese, their relationship with the government is at best tense.


Everywhere you go in this labyrinth of a place, there are working examples of a very different way of life. Tradition permeates everything and even dictates people’s jobs. Fifty-year-old Tursun Zunun was born in this 400-year-old house. He’s a 6th generation pot thrower.

TURSUN ZUNUN: “We live as we did in the old times. We don’t use electric lights. I use my feet to turn the wheel to make pots. If I was to stop doing this the souls of my father and grandfather would also stop”.

MCDONELL: As the oldest of twelve children, Tursun Zunun inherited this trade from his forefathers. He has three daughters and also a son who he hopes will take over after him. Yet he worries that his culture is under threat.

TURSUN ZUNUN: “In the past we had no hair - we had to shave our heads. We wore these dopas. But everything is changing – am I right? We didn’t wear this type of clothing, but now we do. The old things are going. We’ve put away the dopa, and wear nothing on our heads. We’re Uighurs in name only – so much of our culture has already changed”.


MCDONELL: Kashgar’s blacksmiths have occupied the same corner of this city for many hundreds of years. As with other crafts, their skills have been passed down from generation to generation. But here, like elsewhere, change is only days away and the fear of what’s coming is palpable.


BLACKSMITH: “I spent my whole childhood in this place and if they destroy it, we can’t continue our business”.

MCDONELL: Whether they’re bakers or noodle makers, tailors or painters, for many the old ways are about to end. And this is not some slow erosion but an upheaval in front of their faces. The government has declared that most of the old city will have to be knocked down. It’s already levelled parts of the town as big as football fields, other areas have been cleared the size of large city office blocks.

XU JIANRONG: “The reality is that dangerous buildings are everywhere in the old town of Kashgar”.

MCDONELL: Deputy Mayor, Xu Jianrong, is responsible for the old town’s reconstruction. He says he’s worried that an earthquake, like that in Sichuan last year, could one day strike Kashgar.


XU JIANRONG: “If there was an earthquake in Kashgar like the one at Sichuan you can’t imagine the consequences. The streets are very narrow – we couldn’t conduct an evacuation or rescue. The basic infrastructure in the old town is backward and the living and working conditions for the people are also comparatively backward”.


MCDONELL: When you look at some of these buildings you do wonder how this ramshackle old city has held together. It’s true that many houses here don’t have modern facilities and there are those that could be dangerous in an earthquake, but this has been a living, breathing slice of history and the fear is that it’s about to become a shallow fake copy of its former self. Either way, Old Kashgar will never be the same again.


The arguments for and against demolition are complex. Some Uighurs suspect that this is all about control, but most people are afraid to speak openly about government decisions. That is unless you’re ninety years old and believe the authorities can’t hurt you.

OLD MAN: “They never tell the truth. There’s not one official who speaks the truth in Kashgar. All of them have lied or sent people to jail. They beat people. They wrong people. They receive money from the rich and that’s who they promote”.

MCDONELL: Most days military helicopters can be seen flying low over the old city. They’re either keeping an eye on the place or it’s their standard flight path. Their presence is definitely felt.

This is an area of great strategic value for China. It’s the home of high-security satellite tracking stations and other top-secret military facilities. Xinjiang was where China’s first nuclear tests were carried out. Beijing is not about to let this region go.


Some believe that the real reasons for what’s happening in Kashgar can be found outside the city. If Kashgar is surrounded on one side by the desert, it’s protected on the other side by enormous mountain ranges.


We drove along the Karakoram Highway. South West of Kashgar is a special military zone. You need to get clearance from the authorities at a series of checkpoints just to enter here. The further you go, you see more military outposts set up to protect this huge border region.

Across the mountains behind me is Pakistan. The army there is fighting a war with the Taliban. Across the mountains in that direction is Afghanistan - same story. The Chinese Government fears that if small separatist groups here could link up with insurgents across these borders, they could have a full-scale armed conflict in Western China.

We came across the People’s Liberation Army carrying out full-scale counter-insurgency training. Filming from a safe distance, we saw them preparing for bomb attacks and also chemical and biological warfare. These manoeuvres are part of training exercises, which are being conducted throughout Xinjiang.


There are many unguarded parts of this remote and wild border, yet if trained up jihadists tried to infiltrate Uighur communities in China, the government has pledged to strike them severely.


XU JIANRONG: “If a handful of separatists or religious extremists, or international terrorists appear, we will crack down on them immediately, based on international law”.


MCDONELL: High tensions in Xinjiang can already easily spill over into violent conflict. Three weeks ago a mass Uighur protest in the regional capital Urumqi became a full-scale street battle – nearly two hundred people were killed and over one thousand six hundred injured.


We asked if the real reason for moving Kashgar’s Uighurs into flats was to make it easier to control them. The Deputy Mayor said this was totally groundless nonsense.


XU JIANRONG: “We only want people to live in anti-earthquake, safe, comfortable houses - to improve their living conditions and surroundings”.

MCDONELL: “Are there a lot of separatist sympathisers in the old town?”

XU JIANRONG: “Stop. My duties do not involve public security. It’s hard for me to comment on these issues. I am only in charge of city renovations. Of ideology or crimes, I don’t have any knowledge”.


MCDONELL: The practical impact of the demolition programme is that fifty thousand Uighurs must now leave the old city. The government says that most people are happy to go.


XU JIANRONG: “We will never force anyone to leave. We don’t have this type of plan”.

MCDONELL: And there are those who say they want to leave.

OLD LADY: “I’m alone. And because there is some problem with the walls I really want to move”.

MCDONELL: But it doesn’t take long to find people who say they’re being forced out against their will.

OLD MAN: “We won’t move! They’ll only achieve their goal by burying us in the ground. We won’t move from here. This is where we’ve lived for generations. These houses are ours”.

MCDONELL: Yet plenty of people are already moving. They can be seen driving through the streets of Kashgar with all their worldly possessions.


A propaganda program runs every night on local television. It extols the virtues of moving out of the old city and into new apartment blocks. Smiling and waving Uighurs are shown, celebrating this big change. Artists’ impressions show the new buildings, which will replace the old.

On the outskirts of the city, identical blocks of flats are being built to receive the old town’s population. Some here are finding it hard to adjust.

MAN IN NEW APARTMENTS: “Our lives in Kashgar city were good. With our neighbours, we sent regards to each other. We cried the deaths of our relatives together. We blessed each other at weddings but here we don’t know each other.”

LADY IN NEW APARTMENTS: “It’s no use getting angry now. We’ll just make ourselves sick if we worry too much. Of course, if we were allowed to move back to our old houses… it would be good – but this is not going to happen. We’re living here now. Maybe it will get better”.

MCDONELL: With polystyrene and plaster already bursting through fresh coats of paint, you can see that these buildings are not what they’re cracked up to be. This looks like normal concrete, but on closer inspection you can hear how hollow it is. Goodness knows what this place is going to look like in a few years time. But it’s not so much the quality of the new but the loss of the old, which worries people.


WOMAN: “I love my ancient house. This place is like a temple of heaven. We really don’t want to move. Could a new place equal this? It’s impossible”.


MCDONELL: The traditional courtyard house is also a refuge for Muslim women who can dress how they want without being seen in public.


WOMAN: “We don’t want to move but if the government forces us, we don’t have any option”.


MCDONELL: But most people are in the dark about what will become of the old city. In part that’s because local authorities are still deciding how to proceed. According to the government the houses which can pass anti-earthquake tests, will be left alone. Those which can be renovated to reach the anti-earthquake standards, will be renovated. The rest will be demolished and they say rebuilt in a traditional style. The Deputy Mayor says in some areas whole communities will then move back in together.

XU JIANRONG: “If you’re asking me for a percentage, or how many will be restored, our current plans are area by area and we haven’t completed them. But if the local people are happy, we’ll take it to the next step. We’ll accomplish this task together”.

MCDONELL: The government has its work cut out for it, convincing the locals that their city will be rebuilt in a traditional style.


OLD MAN: “No. It’s nonsense. It’s garbage. It’s stupid to listen to the government”.


MCDONELL: Amongst the travellers who come to Kashgar, most are Chinese tourists. By demolishing large parts of the old town, the government risks destroying one of the main reasons people visit here. The government says that preserving the tourist industry isn’t a good enough reason to keep people living in run down houses.

XU JIANRONG: “If you live in a so-called historical but dangerous house and you have a lack of decent living facilities… tourists couldn’t even stay here for one night – am I right? So why should our people live in houses like this just for the sake of tourists?”


MCDONELL: The ancient work practices in Kashgar may seem charming but according to the authorities, the ventilation here is an occupational health hazard.

BLACKSMITH: “We really like the old place, but to tell the truth it’s also really dangerous here. The government needs to rebuild it”.


MCDONELL: By the time we put these pictures to air, the historic blacksmith shops will have been levelled but the government has promised to rebuild the entire blacksmith quarter on the same location and in a traditional style. Many Uighurs are worried about their future. The livelihood of artisans depends on its location in the old city – nobody is going to head out to a new block of flats to buy traditional Uighur arts and crafts.


Parts of Kashgar are already like any other provincial Chinese city. The main square is full of Han Chinese motifs. The locals joke that the statue of former leader Mao Zedong turns its back on the old town and points towards a different future. But the current leaders say all will be well here.

XU JIANRONG: “If you come back in five years to the core area of the old town of Kashgar, it’s special features will be preserved, every family will have a job, everyone will live in an anti-earthquake house, the basic infrastructure will be completed and people’s lives will have greatly improved”.


MCDONELL: Ordinary people here have no idea what’s about to become of their ancient city. The don’t trust the government at the best of times and now they’re feeling the pain of massive changes, even if these changes are being implemented with the best of intentions. All the Uighurs of Kashgar can do is pray that the result here is somehow a relatively good one.

The authorities will be sharing this hope. If they get it right, it could inject some goodwill into a sour relationship. If they get it wrong, they risk giving the Uighurs a new reason to want to throw off Chinese occupation of their homeland.

Thursday, September 3, 2009
Stephen McDonell
This article has been read 3578 times.

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