Kashgar: China’s Erasure of Uyghur Presence



All photographs by Edith Roux

In 2009, the “reconstruction” project in the old city of Kashgar, initiated by Chinese authorities, raised many critical and hostile reactions around the world. Located on the ancient Silk Road and once the capital of several major Central Asian kingdoms, the city of Kashgar is not only representative of the Uyghur identity, but also a sacred place containing the history of Turkish people. The demolition of the old city of Kashgar is seen through the diaspora but also by the various human rights organizations and international media sources as a willingness to project a narrow vision of China by burying the traces of Uyghur civilization. Two years later, Kashgar was paired with the most prosperous coastal city of China, Shenzhen, to transform the old Uyghur city into a modern Chinese city. Why is this modernization so hostile? What is the motive of the Chinese authorities in this project to transform a city located 5,000 km from Beijing?

Reyhan Roux Funambulist 1

The Uyghur people, who speak a Turkic language traditionally practice a Sunni Islam, and live predominantly in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of China. Numbering more than 11.2 million, according to China’s most recent census (2014-2015), they remain the ethnic majority of the region, representing 47% of the total population. They are considered the region’s indigenous inhabitants, as well as the descendants of the Uyghur kingdoms (the Buddhist Uyghur state and the Muslim kingdom of the Karakhanids) previously occupying these territories. Officially conquered by the Qing empire in 1884, when it was given the name Xinjiang (劤쉰), which means “new frontier” in Chinese, this region was claimed by China as an inseparable and historic part of its national territory. Bordered by Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, the Uyghur Autonomous Region is crucial for China on its geopolitical chessboard. Comprising one sixth of China’s total territory, it is the largest administrative entity, with lands overflowing with natural resources, notably oil, natural gas, and coal.

Ravaged by civil wars following the fall of the empire and the Japanese invasion, the central government deserted the region, much to the benefit of nationalist Han governors from the interior, who brought daily life to the brink of chaos. Out of this mess the First Eastern Turkistan Republic was born, lasting only from November 1933 to February 1934. The foundation of this state was the result of a Uyghur renaissance inspired by the Jadids — Tatar, Uyghur, and Uzbek intellectuals who set out at the end of the 19th century to reform Turkic culture and its version of Islam — the term “jadid” is Arabic for “light.” Crushed by the Soviet Army and the forces of Sheng Shicai, the brand new governor of the region, this new republic was immediately buried. The next generation of Jadids, both pro-Soviet and profoundly nationalistic, founded the secular Second East Turkestan Republic on November 12, 1944, which lasted until the proclamation of Communist China and the restoration of power to Beijing in 1950.

Kashgar, Pride of the Uyghurs ///

Kashgar is one of the oldest and most famous cities of Central Asia. Located along the ancient Silk Road, this mythical city was the capital of many Uyghur kingdoms in the past, most notably the Karakhanid dynasty, the Chagatai dynasty, the Emirate of Yaqup Beg, and the First Eastern Turkistan Republic. Considered by the Uyghur people as the cradle of their post-Buddhist history and civilization, Kashgar was also the native home of two major intellectual figures of the 11th century: the linguist-anthropologist Mahmud al-Kashgari and the philosopher Yusuf Khass Hajib, celebrated today from the Xinjiang to Turkey, and all the Turkish republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus in between.

Reyhan Roux Funambulist 2

This is why the name “Kashgar” is intimately linked today to the Uyghur identity. About 80% of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs live in the South, concentrated especially in the oases of Kashgar, Atush, Khotan, and Aksu. Aside from Ili Prefecture, where Uyghurs and Kazakhs are still the majority, the northern part of the region is now being populated by Han migrants, at the behest of the Chinese government. The population of northern cities, such as Ürümqi (capital of Xinjiang), Karamay (Uyghur for “black oil”), Kuytun (a stop along the railway connecting the region to Kazakhstan), and Shihezi (a factory city constructed in the 1970s), is between 70% to 90% Han. In Kashgar and Hotan, this ratio is reversed: more than 90% of their inhabitants are Uyghur, and ethnic Hans still comprise a very small minority according to official statistics. The main locations subject to dispute and rebellion are always the same: the Ili valley and the cities of Kashgar, Hotan, Aksu, and Turpan.

This density of Uyghur people plays a crucial role in the widespread use of the Uyghur language instead of Chinese in the daily life of the region, despite the extreme pressure and constant Sinification efforts by the authorities. The region is also the historic center of the struggle for independence, and the weight of religion and tradition unquestionably weighs heavily on the daily life of the Uyghur people. For the Chinese government, as long as any majority-Uyghur areas are not made Chinese, the integration of Xinjiang into Greater China will be neither successful nor complete. This is why China has launched a number of ‘Chinesication’ projects under the guise of “modernization” in these oases and valleys, focusing in particular on Kashgar and Ghulja, the seat of Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture.

Destruction of the Uyghur Urban Environment ///

Ürümqi, with its skyscrapers, is symbolic of Chinese modernity. The city has nearly three million inhabitants, not including its commuting population. To contrast with this sophistication, the government built a Uyghur district, distinct from all the other parts of the capital, with a large bazaar decorated in the manner typical of Central Asian architecture as its centerpiece. In his book La Chine et la Ville au XXIe siècle (2015), architect-anthropologist Jean-Paul Loubes describes the Uyghur district in Ürümqi as a space copied from Uzbek mosques in Samarkand, but with a Carrefour-chain supermarket in the middle. Next door is the American fast food chain KFC, complete with English signage in a vaguely Arabic-Persian font: behold the modernity of Ürümqi.

Reyhan Roux Funambulist 3

The Chinese government constructed all the major Uyghur cities around the same feature: a replica Tiananmen square, with a large tower of Chinese heroes in the center as a symbol of its conquest, and a large screen broadcasting news from Beijing every evening at 5pm. In Turpan, a faux-7th century Han palace that seems lifted from a Hollywood film set was built next to a large mosque dating to the 19th century, which suggests to tourists, who often do not know the difference between true and false, that this city has always been under Chinese domination. According to Loubes, an insensitive Chinese tourism will trample and destroy these rich cultural spaces of the Uyghur people. And modernity, by way of Chinese tourism, has arrived in nearly every Uyghur city. Special districts painted in a properly ethnic style are created to accommodate the Uyghur population. Furnished with exterior facades decorated according to the aesthetics of the Uyghur tradition, and to please Chinese and foreign tourists, these neighborhoods are, for all intents and purposes, like the more ‘humane’ enclosures of contemporary zoos. Demolition projects in Kashgar (called “renovations” by the Chinese authorities) began in the early 2000s with the reconstruction of the surroundings of the famous Id Kah mosque in the heart of the city, in order to make the site more accessible to tourists. The night market which traditionally operated there was cleared and moved out of town. A livestock market on site was also driven far from the city. Before the mosque now stands a giant digital screen, installed to broadcast official State news.

Starting 2009, the government undertook a brutal campaign of destroying the old city piece by piece. Modernizing Kashgar, the symbol of the Silk Road, was carried out despite the objections of Uyghur residents and preservationists around the world. China justified this wave of developments by calling them “earthquake protections,” as it did in Sichuan Province. But the real motive, according to observers from NGOs and within the Uyghur diaspora, was as follows: just as in Aksu, all Uyghurs will eventually be displaced into suburban housing projects. The city centers, previously occupied by Uyghur homes, will be transformed into Chinese skyscrapers to house current settlers and to welcome new ones.

Following the onslaught of the government bulldozers, foreign Uyghur organizations and NGOs cried foul, making appeals for an international mobilization to stop the destruction. Media outlets around the world dedicated spaces in their pages and broadcasts to the issue. In a resolution adopted in Strasbourg in 2011, members of the European Parliament called on China to immediately cease the demolition of the historic center of Kashgar. Despite these protests, the media coverage of the Uyghur people has been all too infrequent, and has unfortunately had little effect against the bulldozers. The most tragic of these demolitions was the destruction of the famous Xanliq madrasa, a center for Islamic teaching founded in 1442, and considered a national historic monument of China. Despite petitions launched by NGOs, the old city of Kashgar has now been totally razed to make room for the Chinese government’s preferred, modern self-image.

Reyhan Roux Funambulist 4

Essentially, as we have outlined above, while these “Made in China” stamps in Xinjiang have an official material and physical objective, behind this supposed modernization it is not difficult to see the process by which the political and ideological conquest functions: the State attacks these inhabited spaces in order to undermine the entire identity associated with them. Religion aside, spatiality is also an important element of identity. Studies in social geography show the importance of notions of public space, living space (practical and imaginary), and territoriality for a human being’s formation of self and social and spatial relationships. The geographer Guy Di Méo explains more precisely the role of spatiality and geographical places in the lives of individuals: imposed or selected and chosen, spatial contexts (spaces of living, custom, or everyday actions) are incorporated by the individual; they become extensions of one’s own body and inscribe themselves subsequently into one’s system of identity. But this incorporated space is never neutral. It is always socially signified, symbolically qualified by relations, by social positions and stakes. The destruction of a place is also the destruction of its history, its past, and its memory in order to build a new identity — in this case, one appropriately “Chinese.”

Kashgar, the New Shenzhen ///

In 2010, the Chinese government decided to pair the city of Kashgar with Shenzhen, and designated Kashgar as a special economic zone (SEZ). Shenzhen, a coastal city in eastern China, became one of the richest cities in the country in a span of 30 years, thanks to the open politics of the 1980s in the form of SEZs. Pairing Kashgar with the country’s most economically successful city was hardly an accident. The importance of Kashgar to the Uyghur people and its role as a symbol of Uyghur nationalism for its distinct cultural features has already been outlined above. Though Xinjiang has been at the heart of the Great Western Development Strategy (Xibu da kaifa), and though much progress and economic development has occurred since the launch of this project, the level of inequality across Han and Uyghur ethnic lines remains highly skewed.

Numerous studies in Ürümqi have shown that in terms of income disparity between established Han residents, Han migrants, and the Uyghur population, the Uyghurs always come out on the bottom. This economic gap is even greater when one compares the north of Xinjiang, where Hans make up the majority, to the Uyghur-majority south. Income inequality is one of the principle causes of Uyghur discontent directed at the Chinese government, along with the massive Han migration, an unemployment rate which for Uyghurs is double the average, the extreme restriction and control of religious practice, and the prohibition against teaching in the Uyghur language. The Chinese authorities hope to be able to neutralize the region’s unrest by way of economic development projects, along with a heavy-handed surveillance of the social and cultural life of the Uyghur people.

In this vein, the Chinese government added Kashgar to its gigantic “One Belt, One Road” project in 2011, aiming to better integrate the city into the expanding regional economy and those of the neighboring countries of Central Asia — as well as to reduce the risk of what it calls an “extremist and terrorist sentiment,” by providing the Uyghur population with better economic opportunities. Yet the destruction of the city’s historical context and monuments, as well as the exclusion of the Uyghur population from the city center, means that the real beneficiaries of the city’s modernization are its Han migrants — a development that can only weaken the stability of a region upon which the national identity of China supposedly depends.

All photographs are part of the series “The Dispossessed,” by Édith Roux (Kashgar, 2010-2011).