The ancient city of Kashgar, the “Jerusalem of the Uyghurs,” has been destroyed and rebuilt in “Chinese Disneyfied” architecture, a parable for how the CCP would like to reshape its country and, if possible, ours too.
by Ruth Ingram
“Kashgar was coerced,” and the world didn’t protest
If you put a frog straight into boiling water, it will protest. But if you place him gently into a pan, and bring him slowly to the boil. he will not notice until it is too late. With events in Hong Kong fresh in our minds, no allegory could be more fitting than this ancient parable to describe a 21st century sleeping world being cooked gradually under the incremental heat of China, once content to wreak havoc at home, but now beginning to flex its muscles beyond its borders, oblivious of and careless to global outrage.
In a new report released this week by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, entitled, Kashgar Coerced: Forced Reconstruction, Exploitation, and Surveillance in the Cradle of Uyghur Culture, the destruction and rebuilding of the “Jerusalem of the Uyghurs,” the “cradle of Uyghur culture,” and “the contested jewel of empires,” the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in the south of Xinjiang, is cited as a further metaphor for a CCP, whose ambitions are not merely the erasing of a city’s tangible cultural identity, but the stamping out of an entire language, religion and possibly a people. The CCP will then roll out its experiment to the rest of the country, and further afield to the highest bidders across the world.
In the same week as the Kashgar report, Dr Azeem Ibrahim, Research professor at The Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army war college, and Director for the Centre for Global Policy in Washington, speaking at an online seminar to discuss Chinese policy towards religious minorities and in particular Uyghur Muslims, claimed that Xi Jinping was on a mission to silence the opposition to his plans to sinicize China, and to escalate his influence across the globe. He said that the world has mis-managed its relationship with China, and countries that had not yet been sucked into its vortex of debt trap diplomacy and silence, should wake up before it is too late.
He urged every country seeking to make any kind of alliance with China, for whatever reason, to be fully appraised of the underlying conditions of doing business with the CCP. “You may not be aware of the Uyghurs,” he said, “but much of the technology used against them is going to be exported and will be coming closer to home.”
Destroying Kashgar, a cultural crime
The compulsory and total destruction of Kashgar, and its Disneyfied rebuild to satiate the millions of Han tourists now flocking to the prized jewel in the crown of the Uyghur culture, should not be dismissed lightly, but act as a portent of the capabilities of Beijing. The incremental destruction of vast tracts of the old city starting in the early 2000’s, followed by wide scale demolition and forced relocation of 65,000 households in 2009 in the face of worldwide horror and protest, should flag up Beijing’s callous disregard of world opinion. But more insidiously, when the master plan to impose total surveillance over every inch of the territory and the lives of its residents became clear by 2016, once Xi Jinping’s henchman Chen Quanguo assumed control, and vast numbers of Uyghurs started to disappear into what was later unveiled to the world as so-called “vocational training schools,” aka transformation through education camps, Beijing’s “final solution,” to its Uyghur problem became clear.
The world was largely silent, muzzled by impossible debt to and reliance on China for its economic survival. Any perceived threat to the superpower ambitions of China’s self-appointed Great Leader, Xi Jinping, was crushed.
Described by historian George Mitchell as “the best preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia,” the report describes Kashgar’s significance not as a center of grandiose architecture and resplendent construction, but as a “centuries-long, interwoven, fractal mud-brick evolution” which “developed a truly remarkable socio-architectural web that is difficult to fully communicate to anyone who has not experienced its unique atmosphere.”
Chronicling the uniqueness of Kashgar, which was lost the moment the bulldozers began their gigantic sanitizing project, the report went on, “In the same way that Venice’s unusual water-entwined cityscape intuitively fascinates its visitors with its rare, aqueous structure, so also might Kashgar fascinate the visitor with its highly unusual, multi-layered, and intertwined earthen structure. Both the organic building materials and the intricately entangled structures throughout the Old City created a unique, communal burrow-like aesthetic: like a gigantic clay hive bulging out of the earth, acting as the substratum for a highly unique style of communal-religio-cultural life for tens of thousands over the course of centuries.”
Sprinkled with 112 mosques, academics have described life within the ancient walls as “an ecosystem of embedded religious practice within the community.” Kashgar’s significance, says the report “is found in how its unusual cityscape was uniquely refined over centuries to support an extraordinarily integrated community life of Uyghur cultural practice and tradition. As families revolved around their interconnected courtyards, so also ancient neighborhoods revolved around their centuries-old mosques, and the collective imagination of the Uyghur people revolved around the communal life of Kashgar. Not only did the great poets, prophets, and kings of the Uyghur people make their home in Kashgar, the immersive structure of the city also created a living order of robust Uyghur cultural expression, insulated from the state.”
And therein lay the threat.
A city rebuilt for surveillance
Couching the demolition of this priceless legacy to the world, variously in terms of earthquake proofing, improved sanitation, and the dilution of densely populated areas, the diggers did their worst, and in a matter of a few years the city was transformed from mud brick fragility and the centuries-old higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch of labyrinthine chaos, to something akin to a pleasant, stucco fronted, plastic-flower-balconied southern Europeanesque town. But it was not the Kashgar of old.
And worse was to come. Taking the events in Kashgar as a template for Beijing’s expansionist ambitions, it is clear with hindsight that, together with the bulldozing and subsequent reconstruction of an ancient city which started in earnest in the early 2000’s, Beijing had more sinister plans to create a smart city where every aspect of life of every single citizen would be monitored 24/7. Citing anti-terrorism measures in the wake of several violent incidents, instead of simply bringing the perpetrators to justice and trying to address grievances, the CCP solution was to crush a whole people.
Enter: sanitation, wide streets, central heating, and inside toilets. Exit: every single working mosque and religious observance, Uyghur culture and language, and hundreds and thousands of Uyghurs, including poets, writers, academics into a dark abyss of transformation through education camps or worse. Enter: hundreds and thousands of surveillance cameras, checkpoints only for Uyghurs, mutual community monitoring and spying, neighbor on neighbor, friend on friend, and compulsory DNA, facial recognition, blood and tissue typing of every single Uyghur. Exit: trust and the age-old communities forged over millennia.
UHRP Executive Director Omer Kanat is convinced that Kashgar’s reconstruction project, whilst having some valid reasons, was intended to be a deliberate body blow aimed at the core of the Uyghur heartland. “It is difficult to overstate the importance of Kashgar for the Uyghur people,” he said. “It has been horrifying to watch the city being decimated. 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,” he said bitterly.
Business should not prevent us from speaking out
Dr Ibrahim said that it had been a hope of the world in admitting China into the WTO that “as it opened up, it would become more like us with democratic, Western values.”
“In fact, the reality is that the opposite has happened. China is now exporting its values to the rest of the world.”
The meteoric rise of China since joining the WTO has been a shock to the world system for which it has not been ready, as the economic miracle has been accompanied by a tranche of human rights abuses, protest against which has appeared to be futile.
And while the CCP machinations rumble on, the tattered lives of its victims lie strewn among the rubble of a city they loved but will never be the same.
Speaking this week in response to the Kashgar document, one of the many Uyghur exiles strewn across the world, unable to return for fear of the camps and unable to speak out with his real name for fear of government retaliation towards those he left behind, spoke of his family home in Kashgar. “Grandma’s house was usually where we spent most of our weekends,” he remembers fondly. “My father has seven brothers and sisters and weekends were special, always bustling with noise.”
His grandmother passed away in 1997, and the youngest uncle inherited the house, to which children and grandchildren would frequently drop by whenever they missed her.
But things changed abruptly in 2012 when their area was slated for “reconstruction.” “There was nothing wrong with the house, but my uncle was told to tear it down and rebuild it, because the government wanted to re-engineer the entire block.”
The new house was impressive, he said. “It was bright and more beautiful than before, but the feeling was totally different. The whole street was changed. Neighbors left and some sold their new places on.” He said that his father stopped visiting so frequently. “The shadow of my mum was no longer there,” he said.
He tells of an uncle who was ordered to move from his family’s ancestral seat, and threatened if he refused. They were given four apartments at the edge of the city as compensation. “But the life had gone out of his soul.”
“You don’t know how desperate our parents were at that time, watching rows of houses being pulled down, those houses with their own roots, their own history, and culture and sense of security represented by the entire old city,” he said.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim’s stern warning is that the plight of the Uyghurs in cities like Kashgar, however insignificant it might appear to many, is actually a microcosm of Beijing’s expansionist and pernicious agenda for the world. With the majority of Muslim nations muzzled by crippling debt, and increasing numbers of countries and companies beholden in one way or another, few are left to speak out. He advocates urgent decoupling from contracts with the superpower that might entrap future generations, and hopes that nations who are still free to speak out will form alliances, strong enough to withstand the might of the giant.