Unesco, China and a Uighur mystery

KASHGAR, China – What's going on in Kashgar?

The bulldozers have gone silent and demolition dust settled in Kashgar’s Old City district in recent months, leaving the fate of the 2,000-year-old enclave uncertain and offering a sliver of hope that it might survive.

Yet a public relations campaign boasting the benefits of tearing down the ancient Silk Road hub to replace it with a jazzier, new version of itself is underway, evidenced by a billboard affixed to a mud brick wall in town. The sign hints that demolition of Kashgar’s Old City — a controversial government undertaking facing international criticism from heritage and human rights groups – has the backing of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The colorful sign focuses on the June meeting between city officials and Beatrice Kaldun, Unesco’s cultural specialist in Beijing. It insinuates Kaldun praised demolition plans for the Old City — a swath of traditional Islamic architecture so well-preserved and authentic it was used as the backdrop for the “Kite Runner,” a film set in 1970s Afghanistan.

A billboard claiming the "renovation" deserves "international admiration."
(Sharron Lovell/GlobalPost)

The sign goes further, saying Kaldun and others agreed of the project: “We do consider it an action deserving of admiration internationally.”

Kaldun said the sign is just wrong. “I’m very concerned about this billboard,” said Kaldun.

She did visit Kashgar in June, met with officials and reviewed the plans. Then, she told them the project needs to respect local people and customs, and made it clear wide-scale demolition would damage hope of adding Kashgar to a World Heritage preservation list. China has not proposed that, but Kaldun thinks the carrot might work.

“My second point was that as Unesco, we are concerned about preserving heritage,” said Kaldun. In the sign, “they cut off this part.”

It remains unclear how much of the Kashgar’s Old City China will keep, and the situation has grown murkier since the region exploded in ethnic turmoil last summer. About 1,000 families were reportedly moved from the Old City to new apartment blocks in the first half of last year, with dozens of homes and businesses torn down as the plan moved forward as scheduled.

But after ethnic riots seized Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in July, locals say, demolition slowed then stopped, with 5 to 10 percent of the Old City now flattened. About 1,000 of 50,000 families in the Old City have been relocated.

Local speculation holds that continuing destruction would fan flames of discontent among Uighurs, who make up the town’s overwhelming majority. Cold fall and winter weather added to the slowdown. For Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group closely related to Turks, destruction of Kashgar’s Old City is deeply personal. Critics argue the rebuilding is not about earthquake safety, as Chinese officials have said, but about cultural assimilation of a problematic ethnic group.

“Kashgar Old City is as important to the Uighurs as Jerusalem is to Christians, Jews and Muslims,” said Henryk Szadziewski of the Washington, D.C.,-based Uyghur Human Rights Project. “It is a physical embodiment of the Uighur identity, signifying its past present and future.”

Kashgar’s Old City is also an anomaly in modern China: A well-preserved, relatively untouched section of ancient but living architecture. Most of China’s cities have undergone sweeping facelifts amid the country’s economic boom, but the Old City of Kashgar, a small piece of the larger city of more than 3 million residents, is set off from modern city by a river and hills, distinctly unique and almost out-of-place.

Kashgar’s foreign affairs office did not return phone calls seeking comment on the billboard, but Kaldun says a letter she sent the city objecting to the sign has brought results. Unesco has been promised the sign will be replaced with one containing text the U.N. body approves.

But the flawed billboard remains, leading locals to believe the international community supports plans to tear down the Old City.

In Kaldun’s opinion, the apparent delay in demolition and possible new attention on Kashgar’s Old City could be a gift. There is, she said, still a chance to convince officials to preserve more.

“We are concerned about cultural heritage and it’s a whole cultural heritage that’s being destroyed,” said Kaldun. “It’s more than just buildings.”