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Unesco, China and a Uighur mystery

What are the Chinese up to in the Old City of Kashgar, the Uighur "Jerusalem"?

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.”