China’s Attempts to Modernize Ethnic Uighurs’ Housing Creates Discord
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; Page A08
An Ancient Culture, Bulldozed Away
— For hundreds of years, Uighur shopkeepers have been selling bread and
firewood along the edges of Kashgar’s old town to families whose
ancestors bought their traditional mud-brick homes with gold coin and
handed them down through the generations.
Now, this labyrinth of ancient courtyard homes and narrow, winding
streets is endangered by the latest government plan to modernize a way
of life that officials consider dangerous and backward.
Left behind are piles of brick and rubble, houses without roofs and
hurt feelings. It is the most recent fault line to develop between
Chinese rulers and Xinjiang province’s majority ethnic Uighur
population, a Turkic-speaking people who have long chafed under
Beijing’s rule and who worry that their culture is slowly disappearing.
Like Tibetans, Uighurs resent the influx of Han Chinese immigrants
who dominate government and economic positions and have pushed for more
autonomy and economic opportunity. Some Uighurs have waged an
occasionally violent campaign calling for independence. Beijing has
cracked down hard during periods of unrest and its tough line against
suspected separatists has made many Uighurs reluctant to speak on the
record about their objections to government policy.
Here in China’s westernmost city, a $448 million plan to move about
50,000 residents out of the old city and into modern apartment
buildings kicked off last month with the first 100 families
transitioning into government housing. Officials say some houses are
too far away from fire hydrants and that the old city is dangerously
overcrowded. While the earthen homes have stood for centuries, the
deadly earthquake that hit Sichuan province last May only added urgency
to the project
“Because many houses were built privately without any approval, the
life of residents is not convenient and the capability against
earthquakes and fire is weak,” a local state-run news report said
recently. “Our target is every family has a house, every family has
employed members and the economy will be developed.”
About 220,000 people, or 42 percent of the city’s residents, live in the old town.
On the streets, where some houses have already been demolished and
others have been marked for removal, feelings of resentment were
evident. A bilingual education program begun in local schools several
years ago, for example, had been welcomed by Uighurs who agreed that
learning Mandarin Chinese would be good for business. But recently,
some schools have started teaching just Mandarin, angering parents who
want their children to also use their own language.
“They want us to live like Chinese people but we will never agree,”
said a 48-year-old woman in a red jacket and brown head scarf, who
declined to give her name. “If we move into the government apartments,
there are no courtyards and no sun. Women will need to cover up to go
outside and we will have to spend money to finish decorating our rooms.
This is our land. We have not bought it from the government.”
A 60-year-old man with a neat beard and a wool hat expressed his
disapproval as he walked to evening prayers along a narrow road that
would soon be widened to 20 feet under the government’s plan. “If the
government gives me money, I will go. Everybody is unhappy about this,
but government is government, we can do nothing,” he said.
For now, community service officers are visiting families one by
one, urging them to come to their offices and discuss compensation
plans for moving out. “Let’s see when they bring the bulldozers,” the
woman in the red jacket said. “We will talk then.”
Chinese officials in Kashgar could not be reached for comment.
Chinese authorities are often criticized for not being sensitive to
groups outside their own majority ethnic Han culture. During the
Olympic Games, for example, officials could not understand objections
to their use of Han Chinese models and actors to stand in for members
of China’s minority tribes.
Large-scale, raw-earth building complexes are rare, according to Wu
Dianting, a professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal
University’s School of Geography, who did field research in Kashgar
“The buildings are very scientific. They are warm in winter and cold
in summer. The technology used saves material and is environmentally
protective,” Wu said.
The old town is also one of the few authentic representations of
Uighur culture left, he said. “The old town also reflects the Muslim
culture of the Uighurs very well — it has the original taste and flavor
without any changes,” he said. “Here, Uighur culture is attached to
those raw earth buildings. If they are torn down, the affiliated
culture will be destroyed.”