The Chinese government has ruined much of Kashgar’s Old City in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) as it symbolises Uyghurs’ inherited culture, according to the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).
The UHRP outlines what it calls the Chinese government’s “campaign to stamp out tangible aspects of Uyghur culture”, in the new report titled, “Kashgar Coerced: Forced Reconstruction, Exploitation, and Surveillance in the Cradle of Uyghur Culture” using the ancient Silk Road trading centre as a model.
Kashgar is viewed by the Uyghurs as the “cradle of Uyghur culture” for its importance as a crossroads between civilizations. It also sits on what UHRP called the “front lines” of one of the world’s most aggressive, high-tech surveillance campaigns.
The Old City is being targeted for a vast “modernization” effort that the group said seeks to eradicate its historical significance.
The Chinese government announced its intention to raze up to 85% of Old City in 2009, the same year in which some 200 people died and 1,700 were injured in a three-day rampage of violence in July in the XUAR capital Urumqi between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, according to China’s official figures.
Uyghur rights groups say the numbers are much higher.
In a statement released alongside its report, UHRP executive director Omer Kanat called it “difficult to overstate the importance of Kashgar for the Uyghur people,” who revere the Old City for its unique and centuries old architecture.
“It has been horrifying to watch the city being decimated,” Kanat said. “Even worse, it is a deliberate government policy. Kashgar was the living heart of our culture. It is not something that we can get back.”
While several international organisations, including UNESCO, have voiced their concern at the potential loss of architectural legacy, UHRP said in its report that “it is precisely because of Kashgar’s uniqueness and its profound degree of cultural significance for Uyghurs that the Chinese government has gone to extraordinary lengths to co-opt the city’s symbolic heritage.”
“Kashgar’s reconstruction, exploitation, and surveillance have been mutually reinforcing, producing a new breed of totalitarian ‘smart city’ optimized for ethnic repression,” it said.
Kashgar’s Old City offers one of the clearest examples of Beijing’s efforts to reshape the Uyghur cultural narrative, but it is by no means the only one. RFA’s Uyghur Service has documented countless cases of official efforts to wipe away the historical and social touchstones of Uyghur civilization and replace them with symbols of loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But the targeting of Uyghur cultural traditions goes far beyond the destruction of their physical manifestations. Heavy restrictions on religious practices, the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools, and even appearance and diet, are in place throughout the region under the guise of “modernization.”
In its recommendations, URHP called on the Chinese government to end the demolition of all Uyghur cultural sites; cease the destruction of mosques, graveyards, and other sites; and meaningfully engage the Uyghur community in plans for development.
It also urged Beijing to add Kashgar’s Old City to UNESCO’s Tentative List for consideration as a World Heritage Site and to shut down surveillance measures in the region.
UHRP also called on the United Nations to engage with the Chinese government on the status of the Old City, and for governments to raise private and public concern for continued destruction of cultural sites across the XUAR.
Additionally, the group requested that governments impose targeted sanctions, such as the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act, on senior officials responsible for abuses in the region, as well as export controls to deny the Chinese government and companies enabling government abuses access to technologies used to violate basic rights. (Source: RFA)