Ürümqi may be the capital of Xinjiang, but in most respects Kashgar is the province’s first city. Until the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Ürümqi was a small garrison town. Kashgar, which was part of the Silk Route, has been at the centre of the region’s trade, and at the heart of Uighur culture and tradition, for more than a thousand years. There have been alterations to the old city over the last thirty years – the 25-foot thick city wall was mostly torn down, and a main street was built through its centre – but when I first visited Kashgar in 2000 the old city was a maze of knife-sellers, bakers, blacksmiths and adobe homes that made me forget I was in China. In 2006 the city stood in for 1970s Afghanistan in the film of The Kite Runner.
In May 2009, the Chinese government announced that most of the old city would be demolished and rebuilt. Kashgar’s vice-major, Xu Jianrong, explained that ‘the entire Kashgar area is in a special area in danger of earthquakes’ and asked: ‘What country’s government would not protect its citizens from the dangers of natural disaster?’ It’s true that there were major quakes in the region in 2007 and 2008, but still it was hard not to make a connection between the announcement and the violence that had taken place in the city in 2008, when a group of police recruits were hit by a truck and then attacked with knives and grenades, killing 16 of them.
After the riots in Ürümqi in July 2009, which led to around 200 deaths, and further tensions that autumn, the central government announced in May 2010 that Kashgar would become an economic development zone and receive major investment in its infrastructure and industry, as well as tax breaks for corporations. This led to an increase in property prices of between 30 and 40 per cent, with most of the buyers coming from inner China. Two-thirds of the old city has now been demolished; many of the Uighur residents have been relocated to new housing projects on the outskirts of the city. What remains of the old city is a kind of ethnic showcase for tourists.
Similar demolitions are taking place elsewhere in Xinjiang. In March, regional authorities told reporters that by 2015, 1.5 million houses would be rebuilt or ‘transformed’ throughout the province. A recent report by the Uighur Human Rights Project argues that the demolitions are part of an ongoing campaign to erode Uighur culture. The result is likely to be an increase in Han settlement in southern Xinjiang, at the same time as Uighur communities in the region are increasingly dispersed.
Over the last two decades, shopping malls and wider highways have replaced wooden houses and hutongs all over China. Residents are rarely if ever consulted, and usually receive inadequate compensation. In Xinjiang, however, the destruction has fulfilled political as well as economic goals. Kashgar’s old city used to be a symbol of a thriving Uighur cultural tradition; in its reduced form it is symbolic of the Chinese government’s determination to marginalise the Uighurs.