KASHGAR, China (Reuters) - A drive to modernise the old Silk Road city of Kashgar has obliterated whole stretches of old Uighur neighbourhoods, even as the government tries to win over residents wary of Chinese rule.
A year after riots engulfed Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang region, the razing of old Kashgar is a prime example of how China’s modernising campaigns can come at the expense of local sensitivities.
Brick-fronted shops on main streets hide from view acres of ochre dirt — all that remain of swathes of the old city at the centre of Kashgar, heart of southern Xinjiang on China’s frontier with Central Asia.
The riots made anything to do with Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic speaking people, politically sensitive. In their wake, Beijing fast-tracked a plan to develop and industrialise the region, especially the poorer south, where Uighurs make up the majority.
“The thing is, these buildings are what makes Kashgar unique. They are nowhere else in the world,” said a Uighur man who gave his name as Memet.
“So it’s a shame to tear them down, and replace it with something like that,” he said, gesturing at white-tiled, blue windowed commercial buildings found in every provincial Chinese city.
Kashgar is not like any Chinese city.
It is a vibrant market town with a modern Muslim ethos, where visitors from more conservative Pakistan are surprised to see veiled women driving motorcycles. Most adults speak Uighur, and very little Chinese.
A year after the Urumqi riots, tensions are evident. Army trucks patrol the streets every few hours, emblazoned with slogans that say: “The happiness of the Kashgar people is our heart’s wish.”
And debate on the top-down approach to modernisation has vanished since the unrest struck Urumqi on July 5, 2009.
Before the riots, foreign journalists could interview residents openly about the destruction of the old city. When this reporter checked into a hotel, police visited to warn that any interviews would result in expulsion from the city.
Many hotels that used to accept foreigners are no longer permitted to do so. Tourism has plummeted, shopkeepers said.
A man picking through dust and bricks with his wife and son said his grandfather’s house, where they live, was due to be torn down soon. He would pay half and the government half for a replacement home, but he said he did not yet know what type of home it would be.
“No one protested, there was no point,” he said.
The city government’s drive to raze and rebuild Kashgar’s old city predates the riots and the crackdown. Initial protests by historical preservationists and overseas Uighur groups were ineffective, and Chinese conservationist groups are no longer willing to speak publicly about it.
The plan was announced shortly after an earthquake in Sichuan province killed over 80,000 people, burying them in both traditional wooden homes and in the cheaply built concrete buildings common across China.
Some new, local-style brick buildings, with steel reinforcement, are already going up in parts of old Kashgar, while elsewhere, concrete highrises are underway. Other neighbourhoods maintain a precarious existence.
Far out in the countryside, square stone buildings marked “earthquake resistant housing” stand mostly empty in the exposed desert, near the plots of green poplars that shade villages.
Locals and Uighur tourists throng to historic sites around the region, many of which are badly in need of paint and repair.
“The old town of Kashgar is an important cultural city that represents Uighur culture. Unfortunately, houses are very crowded, with families of five squeezed into 8 square metres (26 ft),” Enkbaer Wupur, a senior government official in Kashgar, told a news conference in Beijing in March.
“The construction is made of post and panel, wood and brick. The buildings are dilapidated, and cannot resist earthquakes.”
Within five years, Kashgar plans to complete 28 housing blocks each holding 220 households, accommodating more than 60,000 people, he said.
“This shows the Communist Party’s concern for minorities.”
City residents had mixed feelings about the disappearance of the narrow streets and adobe homes once hailed as the best surviving example of Central Asian architecture.
Some houses are crammed, with no more than 20 square metres (220 square feet) of living space, while others spread over a spacious 120 square metres (1,300 square feet), with shaded courtyards and a second storey.
“Some people, especially from the smaller homes, might think it’s a good deal. They get a new place, electricity, all the conveniences,” resident Memet said.
“Others, especially if they have a 120 square metre house, are unhappy. I’d say 80 or 90 percent of the people are satisfied.”
Local traditions still abound in the city.
On a sultry summer afternoon, the Ostangboy teahouse was full of men in green Uighur skullcaps, feet tucked beneath them as they chatted over tea.
Suddenly, the afternoon lull was broken by a middle-aged patron playing a quick tune on a long-necked, stringed rawap.
While exile groups say the destruction of old Kashgar is an attack on Uighur culture, local officials deny the charge.
“Some people are now making an issue of Kashgar’s renovation as destroying Uighur traditional culture,” Nuer Baikeli, governor of Xinjiang, told the March press conference.
“To equate dilapidated houses with Uighur culture shows they don’t understand Uighur culture, indeed they disrespect it.”
Editing by Ron Popeski