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A Silk Road culture pushed to the brink

Adrienne Mong

One of many Chinese security forces manning People's Square in Kashgar.

KASHGAR, XINJIANG—Just days after the latest violence struck China’s far northwestern region, we expected security to blanket this ancient Silk Road city of 600,000.

On the eve of Ramadan last weekend, Kashgar saw at least 14 people killed and more than 40 others injured, according to state-run media.  It came on the heels of another deadly clash—this time in the southern provincial city of Khotan--between the Han Chinese and Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic Muslim minority that lives predominantly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

All of the incidents—which made up the bloodiest month in the region since the July 2009 riots between Han Chinese and Uighurs--were blamed on separatist extremists. In fact, the Chinese government claimed the assailants in the two Kashgar attacks were Uighurs who had been trained in neighboring Pakistan.

China’s minister for public security has sworn there would be “no mercy” for anyone pursuing violence or separatism.

Security sprawl?
Sure enough, throughout Kashgar—where 80 percent of the population is Uighur--there were small squads of soldiers equipped with firearms and riot shields outside virtually every major government ministry building. 

Much larger teams of troops manned People’s Square, facing out onto the Mao statue across Renmin Lu, and around the Id Kah Mosque, the largest of its kind in Xinjiang.  And a shopping mall that catered largely to Han Chinese was home to a smattering of black-uniformed police sporting reflective sunglasses. 

Adrienne Mong

Police vehicles on the streets of Kashgar.

But the security presence was still nowhere to the scope and scale that we’ve seen in Urumqi after the July 2009 riots or in Lhasa after the March 2008 unrest--where entire companies were deployed across both cities.

Nor was the tension as palpable as local reports claimed.  “In Kashi [Kashgar], a silent tension also hangs in the air.  People go about their daily life but the presence of heavily armed police and armored cars dampens the spirit,” according to an article in the English version of the Global Times, a nationalist state-run newspaper.

“The Xinjiang story is always [about] playing the double game,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.  “When the local officials emphasize security, they get more support from Beijing.  At the same time, they reassure the Han [Chinese] population that it’s safe to be there to demonstrate to Beijing that they’re doing a good job at maintaining stability.”

Which may have explained the appearance of normalcy.  The streets were crowded with life.  We passed only one checkpoint that consisted of two local police wilting under the sun, next to a busy sidewalk, occasionally stopping cars to check for IDs.  A curfew that went into effect as night fell only hampered traffic flowing into, not out of, Kashgar.

We experienced no evident threat, and, as two Chinese-looking individuals wandering the streets of Kashgar, we encountered no hostility from Uighurs.  If anything, we provoked more stares from the Chinese. 

'No one wants to take Uighur cabs'
Nevertheless, what we found was a highly divided community.

It struck us immediately after we landed at Kashgar’s airport.  A crowd of taxi drivers—Chinese and Uighur—haggled with us over the cost of driving us into town.  We settled on the most reasonable offer, which happened to come from an ethnic Chinese cabbie called Zhang.

As soon as we’d climbed into the back of his taxi, he asked whether we were Han Chinese.  Then he barked at us, “Can’t you tell the difference between Han and Uighurs?  No one wants to take Uighur cabs.  They all feel unsafe.” 

Adrienne Mong

Children play in the maze that is Kashgar's Old City.

Zhang, a native of neighboring Gansu Province, came to Xinjiang when he was serving in the Chinese military 26 years ago.  He made no effort to hide his feelings for Uighurs: “I hate them.”

But when we asked whether he’d go back to his hometown, he shrugged.  “What would I go back for?  There’s nothing there….  Here, I have my taxi business.”

The Uighurs we chatted with were much more circumspect (even after I reassured them I’m American).  None would engage in a conversation about the weekend’s attacks.  One person only went so far as to advise me not to take photographs of the security on People’s Square.

Knowing that the attack sites were being closely monitored by police, we decided to avoid them and focused instead on parts of the Old City.

Old City under threat
Although it remains unclear why the recent attacks took place, there’s been much speculation about growing Uighur resentment over the erosion of Kashgar’s native Uighur culture—typified by wholesale demolitions of the Old City that were first announced in 2001 but only began taking place in early 2009.

Government officials have argued that the Old City needs to be razed and rebuilt because they say the dusty brick and wood homes are unsanitary and dangerous, especially in an earthquake-prone region. 

“The Old City is actually central to the story,” said Bequelin, who’s conducted research in the region for years.  “What prompted the decision to re-draw Kashgar, because that is essentially what this is about…was simply the protest in Tibet in 2008.  That’s what really made the government decide it has to be quite aggressive on Xinjiang.”

For generations, an estimated 13,000 families have lived in this picturesque section of Kashgar.  The sand-colored buildings are laid out in a maze of narrow alleys, reminiscent of parts of Kabul’s Old City currently being restored with the help of international foundations.  The Old City is the primary draw for the high tourist traffic.  In fact, it was a stand-in for the 1970s Kabul featured in the movie version of “The Kite Runner.” 

“The Old City is not something the Chinese administration has the method to manage,” said Bequelin.  In effect, he added, to destroy the area is part of wider efforts to make this most Uighur of all cities in Xinjiang more “Han Chinese-friendly.”

Adrienne Mong

One of many functioning mosques in the Old City.

And, as with many ethnic Chinese metropolises all across the country, the Old City’s residents say they have not been informed—let alone consulted—on official rebuilding plans.

“I don’t know,” said a 21-year-old university student who went by the name Guli.  A major in tourism, she was showing us around the warren of mazes that make up one sector of the Old City and we had paused to overlook an acre of land that had been recently cleared.  “I don’t know where the residents ended up.”

In another sector of the Old City--close to the main artery bisecting Kashgar, Renmin Lu, and facing the city’s Grand Bazaar—a woman sat in the shade of her doorway, away from the blistering desert heat. 

On one side of her home there was nothing but rubble and dirt.  The neighbors had left months ago, their house demolished, leaving behind 400 to 500 families like hers still living in the densely packed hill.

“They moved to another part of the city,” explained the woman, who did not give her name but said she was a nurse.  “I don’t know when they’re going to rebuild this area.”

She did know, however, that she and her family did not want to move.  “There are elderly members in my family.  They can’t move around easily,” she said.  “This is a good place to live.”

Dividing a community
It was hard to escape the symbolism of the demolitions.  Consider the mere fact that the Old City is no longer one whole.  We saw at least three different sections, surrounded by the high-rises of new Kashgar.  As a strategy to break up the Uighur community, it looks increasingly effective.

Non-residents aren’t even permitted to enter the Old City without first paying an entrance fee of almost $5 (30 renminbi) and having a tour guide.  And though local media have reported a dramatic downturn in tourism to Kashgar, a steady stream of Chinese tour groups could be seen everywhere. 

Outside one section, two or three large tour buses parked by the curb.  Many of the tourists had come all the way across the country from Jiangsu Province on China’s eastern seaboard.

And yet Kashgar still retains an overwhelmingly Uighur feel.  The Grand Bazaar may be quiet because of Ramadan, but the colors, aromas, sounds, and people are all distinctly of Central Asia, not China.  Threading through the crowds were the occasional South Asian, Central Asian (Xinjiang counts most of the Stans as its neighbors), or handful of ethnic Chinese tourists.

Ramadan is observed to a high degree in the Uighur parts of the city.  Most cafes and restaurants were shuttered in the daytime, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the Chinese section of town, where we found a Mao-themed restaurant serving Hunan cuisine.

Searching for the plans to remake Kashgar
The Uighurs weren’t the only ones who seemed unclear about the Old City’s fate as a metropolis reborn.

It took us the better part of an afternoon to track down an urban planning exhibition that promised to explain the plans for the remaking and remarketing of Kashgar into a special economic zone

The Chinese central government announced last year that it would create the zone to encourage wider regional trade and investment.  The new airport we landed in—costing $25 million--was a key initial step towards establishing the zone.

Adrienne Mong

A Han Chinese tour group from Jiangsu Province visits Old Kashgar.

When we had found it—housed in a snazzy new pavilion parked on the water in Donghu Park—it was shut.

“The exhibition opens on October 1,” said a young woman who unlocked the door to let us into the air conditioned space.  “We don’t know much about the plans.  But they haven’t been finalized; everything is still under discussion.”

We couldn’t enter the exhibition hall, but the displays visible to us from the entrance looked impressive and expensive: large digital screens and colored panels with detailed maps.

Evidently, someone somewhere was clear about the plans.

With additional research by Silver Siwei Wang.