Remember Old Kashgar by M. Scott Brauer

One of the world’s oldest cities, Kashgar serves as both the spiritual and political capital of traditional Uighur culture.  Since 1949, the modern People’s Republic of China has exerted strong control over the region, and Kashgar has been particularly hard hit.  Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a province covering 1/6th of China’s territory holds a majority of the country’s oil and gas reserves.  Long at odds with the Uighurs’ sometimes bloody quest for independence, the Chinese government has insituted a program of subsidized migration and settlement in the area by Han majority Chinese.  In so doing, the government hopes to develop a stable and robust economy whose purpose is the exploitation of the region’s natural resources and to overwhelm the local ethnicities.  Whereas the Uighur population of Kashgar was previously as high as 90%, government settlement efforts have changed the city’s demographics to less than 70% Uighur, and the percentage is still dropping.

At the heart of Kashgar is the so-called Old City.  Of tremendous historical value, the twisting alleyways and haphazardly built houses clump together and spring out of the city’s terrain in an organic and natural way.  After sporadic uprisings and fighting between Uighurs and Hans, the Beijing-controlled municipal government has unveiled plans to completely renovate the Old City. Uighur families who’ve lived in the same location for, in some cases, hundreds of years will be uprooted and resettled in cookie cutter apartment blocks built according to contemporary Chinese building standards.  Notwithstanding the individual upheaval of this process, the redevelopment of central Kashgar will radically transform the nature of daily life in the Uighur community.  The alleyways of the Old City create a naturally closed and safe neighborhood structure in which children can play and neighbors interact without fear of outsiders or traffic.  These alleyways also lead to central streets, arteries for the community on which Uighur-owned businesses thrive.  All of this will change as the government imposes redevelopment on the Old City, though not everyone is convinced the change will be bad.

In his home not far from the Grand Bazaar, 60-year-old Mohmat* cries as he describes his life.  Hans moving into the area have taken his job and his house is soon to be demolished.  Unable to afford medicine, he smokes marijuana to relieve the pain in his liver and legs.  Pages of the Koran hang on the walls of his bedroom.  At once blaming China’s central government for his problems, he also sees some sense in the policies.  His house has no plumbing and little electricity.  With the new apartment buildings, his family would enjoy a marked improvement in their quality of life.  Still, without a more systemic overhaul of city and state policies, and clear protection for Uighur employment and religion, he sees the development of the Old City as a small step toward much needed reform in Kashgar.

Others are more optimistic.  On a bus from Kashgar to Hotan, a man named Askar* approaches me.  A Uighur living in Urumqi, the provincial capital, his english is great and he’s eager to talk.  “I am hopeful,” he says of the future of Xinjiang.  He worries about the transformation of Kashgar, but sees it as a necessary step in the progress of the region.  His own life has changed dramatically, too.  His first career was working as a newspaper journalist, but it felt to him like a deadend job.  He spent hours upon hours teaching himself english in libraries and has been an Amway representative for the past year or two.  Amway, of course, being the multi-level marketing scheme made popular in the US in the 1970s.  “I will be the president [of Amway] in 7 years,” he exclaims hopefully.  His trip to Kashgar and Hotan, in fact, was to set up more Amway franchises.  The business, he tells me, is an exciting opportunity, a way to live the American dream in a place that couldn’t be more different from the suburbs where Amway was made popular.  The promise of a better of life offered by the company, and which is never achieved by the overwhelming majority of Amway representatives, provides Askar with a goal far removed from the problems facing Kashgar and the Uighurs.

More photos from this story are available for license at M. Scott Brauer’s archive.

*only first name given over concern for safety

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