Monday, June 01, 2009

China's Efforts to Impose "Modernity" on the Uighur city of Kashgar

Although it's outside of my usual area of expertise, I was fascinated and saddened by the story last week on China's efforts to destroy the old city in the Uighur city of Kashgar, in the western-most part of the country and a major stop for centuries as part of the silk road.

Over the next few years, city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

In its place will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture “to preserve the Uighur culture,” Kashgar’s vice mayor, Xu Jianrong, said in a phone interview.

I'm not an expert in planning, but I fail to see how destroying centuries-old homes is any means to "preserve" a culture. But the Chinese government's project is proving far more damaging than a simple assault on the culture wrapped up in the buildings:

Hajji and his wife lost their life’s savings caring for a sick child, and the city’s payment to demolish their home will not cover rebuilding it. Their option is to move to a distant apartment, which will force them to close their shop, their only source of income.

“The house belongs to us,” said Hajji’s wife, who refused to give her name. “In this kind of house, many, many generations can live, one by one. But if we move to an apartment, every 50 or 70 years, that apartment is torn down again.

“This is the biggest problem in our lives. How can our children inherit an apartment?”
This really gets at the sinister nature of the project. It's not just destroying these people's homes in the name of "cultural preservation." It's also stripping them of their livelihood and the pride in family ownership of a home through generations.

The article calls the government's explanations "befuddling." The main argument is that the Chinese government claims the homes are "unsafe" in the event of an earthquake, and that it will build stronger apartments based on the Uighur architectural style. Now this may be true. However, it's worth remembering last year's earthquake in May, in which government-constructed schools collapsed easily, killing thousands of students. If the same government effort goes into these apartment houses as it went into that schools, it seems the Uighurs homes (which have survived centuries already, presumably including making it through earthquakes) may not any less safe than newly constructed buildings. That doesn't mean it will be the same effort - the buildings very well may be an improvement in terms of structural safety, and there will be modern conveniences like plumbing and garbage collection (something the article points out is lacking in the old city as it stands). Additionally, the government no doubt probably hopes that the destruction of the Uighur old city, with its close quarters and familiarity among neighbors and residents, will reduce the Uighur separatist movement's ability to promote its message, too.

Still, at the end of the day, destroying 85% of an area rich in a minority culture and history, against the wishes of many of that minority's citizens, all in the name of "modernity," strikes me as a truly sad tale for those who are being displaced.