Demolishing Kashgar, repressing Uyghurs

A British military survey map of Old Kashgar from 1908 superimposed over a satellite view of the modern city.

In an eerie way, Kashgar reminds me of Paris. While researching my book, I visited the Uyghur oasis in China’s western region of Xinjiang and saw it undergoing a massive demolition. The reason: Chinese officials say the town’s old neighbourhoods are unsafe and vulnerable to earthquakes. The solution: raze the ancient quarter and reconstruct a new city.

Almost every Muslim town in Xinjiang that I visited is being modernized along the exact same lines: medieval walls, narrow bazaar streets and labyrinths of low-slung courtyard homes are being bulldozed to make way for a network of grand boulevards, modern apartments, shops and monumental public spaces. (Check out my cool map of Old and New Kashgar). It is a scheme pioneered and made famous in Paris by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. In 1852, the civic planner modernized the French capital by demolishing entire blocks and laying out a spectacular axial grid over Paris.

According to Xu Jianrong, Kashgar’s deputy mayor, the modernization is supposed to improve residents’ standard of living, yet authoritarianism, as in Haussmann’s Paris, underlies China’s new urbanism. Haussmann designed boulevards so infantry could easily circulate and control the city, and fire artillery at unruly citizenry if need be. The French brought this scheme to their own colonial outposts, ploughing grandiose boulevards through the ancient Muslim quarters of Algiers and Tunis.

Chinese city planners are now effectively doing the same: destroying the warren of Muslim homes and shops where Uyghur dissidents and nationalists can hid. By relocating Uyghurs to mid-rise apartments, Beijing can better control and contain its often unruly Muslim citizens. Kashgar is even crowned with a monument to modernity: a steel telecommunications tower atop the Public Security Bureau in the centre of town pierces the skyline like a miniature Eiffel Tower.

No one should be surprised by this politically motivated destruction. Chinese authorities have admitted as much. The Uyghur neighbourhood of Heijiashan in Urumiqi was home to 200,000 people. It was knocked down and is to be replaced by a new residential development. The official Xinhua news agency described the area as a “hotbed of poverty and crime” that “disrupted social order.” Heijiashan was a flashpoint for ethnic violence that erupted on July 5, 2009 in Urumqi between Uyghurs and the majority Han Chinese, leaving nearly 200 dead and 1,700 injured.

Al Jazeera English has done a half-hour documentary on Kashgar, its destruction and China’s repressive rule in Xinjiang. It is a fascinating and vivid portrait of the city with spectacular cinematography. It is well worth watching. I’ve posted the videos below.

AL JAZEERA ENGLISH: China’s Uighur dilemma