Cultural Demolition in Kashgar: A Liberation Special Report

From the standpoint of the newspaper addict, Paris is a glorious city.  Although it leans further toward the (French) center of the political spectrum than Jean-Paul Sartre’s leftist daily of choice L’Humanite, the journal quotidienne of choice for this reader is Liberation. The paper covers Asia sporadically but with great insight, including provocative articles about Beijing artist/architect Ai Weiwei (see “Fuck Pekin,” 17 June 2009), European outsourcing of aerospace to Tianjin, internet censorship in June 4 commemoration, and art art art.  Freshly remodeled since 7 September, Liberation continues to pour it on.

(As does one other experienced traveller to Xinjiang, Chuck Kraus, whose photojournal from Kashgar can be viewed by clicking on the image below.)

Kashgar, 2009 -- photo by Chuck Kraus, U.S. Department of State
Kashgar, 2009 -- photo by Chuck Kraus, U.S. Department of State/Hiram College

On 12 September, Liberation ignored the burning tears of the patriotic Americans who still want to bomb someone because of 11 September 2001, focusing instead on the ongoing CCP destruction of historic Kashgar in 2009.   This is first-rate reportage.  [I translate about two-thirds of the article below.] Photographs by Gilles Sabrié adorn these four gorgeous pages.

Gilles Sabrie
Gilles Sabrie, photographer

[According to the photojournalist networking website Lightstalkers, photographer Gilles Sabrie moved to Beijing from New York in 2006; a portfolio of his work can be viewed hereHis homepage is rather remarkable as well.

Sabrie’s photos for the following story can be viewed here, courtesy Photoshelter.]

Here’s the citation and my translation:

Pascale Nivelle,  “Chinese Kashgar: Cultural Demolition [Chine. Kashgar, la démolition culturelle],” Liberation, 12 Sept. 2009, “Le Mag: Reportage” section, pp. 8-11.

Decreed a  seismic zone by Beijing, the Uighur metropolis is invaded by promoters who destroy traditional homes and profit from the soulless city.  A normal scene which poorly hides the pace of change.

[Full article text in French available here.]

“What would you say if I blew up the Eiffel Tower on the pretext that it might be struck by lightning?”  In one gesture, Mahmut (pseudonym), the young Uighur guide, embraces the ocher roofs and the labyrinthine alleyways of Kashgar: “All of this will disappear within three years.  They will destroy everything, and they say it is for our security.”

They?  The government, the colonizing Han Chinese, and the people who “collaborate” with them.

“It is a cultural war in this neighborhood,” says Mahmut, “and the Uighurs have already lost.”

Cultural war and and completely short war [Guerre culturelle et guerre tout court].  Hans and Uighurs, which have coexisted for approximately 60 years in Xinjiang, are now ready to kill each other at any moment [sont prêts à s’entretuer à tout moment].

It happened on 5 July in Urumqi, the provincial capitol.  That bloody tuesday, 197 people were killed, decapitated or beat up, mostly on [by?] the Chinese side [la plupart du côté chinois].  It is a purely ethnic conflict which Beijing disguised as an “uprising of hooligans [voyous/ 流氓],” exactly like in Tibet sixteen months earlier.

In Urumqi or Kashgar, the final slogans of the Party cover the walls and resonate through the high parlors: “Protect Unity!”

Peoples Square, Kashgar -- photo by Chuck Kraus
People's Square, Kashgar -- photo by Chuck Kraus

Until now, Kashgar has escaped this “unity,” synonym for uniformisation.  An oasis city lost at the end of the Far West of China, it is also nearer to Istanbul than to Beijing.  The capital is a journey [one must take] by flight, and Afghanistan is a few hours away by car behind the glacial summits of the Pamirs.  Mahmut, 20, asks the name of the German who saved Paris from the Nazi destruction in 1944.  A Chinese Dietrich von Choltitz, viola!  That is what is needed in Kashgar.

“]Dietrich von Choltitz, unlikely protector of Paris [via Europa en Guerre]
Dietrich von Choltitz, unlikely protector of Paris; image via Europa en Guerre
Everything here recalls central Asia: the odors of the lamb rotisserie in the bazaars, the minarets and the veiled women, the children with green eyes and the mustached shepherds who chant the muqam and cry “Allah” with their whole lungs.

On the street porches in the historical center city, one can again find the guides who boast of “the pearl of the Silk Road.”  Everywhere, Kashgar is becoming “Kashi,” rebaptised and remodeled by the communist Chinese since the “liberation” from the old eastern Turkestan [l’ancien Turkestan oriental] to become the province of “Xinjiang” in the early 1950s.  In Kashgar-Kashi, one speaks Uighur, a cousin language of Turkic, but one must awake before the sun comes up in order to be in accord with Beijing time.

“In Rome, one must do as the Romans do,” says Mahmut, who learned the phrase by watching English-language DVDs.  “Our culture is against it, yet we have to do as the Chinese do.”  And soon, live like them.

The trembling of the earth in Sichuan on 12 May 2008 gave a signal of destruction.  The ancient city, the earthen houses and the interlocking alleyways — all of which impede surveillance — were suddenly declared “dangerous.”

“Kashgar is one of the six Chinese cities which is especially menaced by earthquakes.  This peril weighs upon the people, and it is decided to renovate [Kashgar],” hammers Xinjiang TV for months.   The State Council has set aside 3 billion yuan (300 million Euros) for the project of “renovation,” a task which concerns 220,000 persons and 62,000 homes.

Since February, the scraping of shovels has muffled the call to prayer.  The traditional homes of one story, each with a fig tree planted in the walled courtyard, disappear after centuries and along with them, the carpenters, bakeries, iron workers, and merchants of tapestries which do their business on the ground floor [rez-de-chausée].

Forty mosques and houses more than two thousand years old are vowed to be destroyed.  “The earthquake menace is a pretext,” affirms Abdil, a businessman in his forties.  “Truthfully, it is because they want to crush our culture, like in Tibet.”

The turning point came in 2003, just after the arrival of the railroad and the first great wave of Han colonialists.  “They had theaters, cinemas, everything,” recalls Abdil.  “These were the first things which were suppressed.”

Bonuses or Penalties

In front of the Id Kah mosque, everything is newly renovated, and Chinese “soap operas” are broadcast during the hour of prayer.  In the People’s Square, at the foot of a colossal Mao, constructed ten years after his death, a giant screen diffuses the good news of the government every night, in Mandarin.  Floods, eathquakes, fires….”We cannot wait any longer,” states the commentator in the enthusiastic tone of a pioneer.  “No other state, no other political party can achieve such a project; the entire world will admire us.”

The Uighurs dance in traditional costumes while the Han sit in their big black cars.  The relations [entente] between “ethnic minorities” and the Chinese is “marvellous.”  Everyone must contribute to “the construction of a magnificent fatherland.”  Bonuses are proposed for the first to leave the old city, while the tardy will be penalized.

On this night at the end of June, five people follow the video show, emerging onto a deserted plaza.  Two are Uighurs who do not speak Mandarin, like more than two thirds of the local population; the other three are Chinese laborers, migrants from Henan province, tools hanging from their belts, as if drawn by Jean Charlot.  These are the “colonists” encouraged by the government to put down roots in this Chinese El Dorado.   These peasants, who left their village in the center of the province, are also lost in Kashgar rather than Beijing or Guangzhou…

Bulldozers often embark upon improvisations.  Xanliq, the very famous madrassa (Koranic school) of Kashgar, founded in 1442, was razed on one night in June.  The neighborhood discovered the pile of ruins with the light of dawn.  “It was a grand center of study for the imams,” explains a vendor of flour, “we thought it could be made into a museum.”

In Beijing, Hu Xinyu, director of the Center for Cultural Protection, one of the rare Chinese organizations that spoke out against the project, raises his hands in a sign of impatience: “Kashgar is not an isolated case; all Chinese cities suffer the same way.  But we don’t have this credo in China: the power of two.”

For Nicholas Becquelin, researcher for Human Rights Watch and specialist of Xinjiang, the Beijing offensive toward Kashgar has a double meaning: “This demonstrates a habitual attitude of the Chinese government: whether Tibetan nomadism, Uighur architecture, or indigenous patrimony, none of it has value in the face of modernizing Chinese civilization [civilisatrice chinoise].  And it is much easier to control the population in a modern city.”

Coda 1: Time magazine reports on Kashgar’s destruction here in a report dating from June 2009.  However,in part since the French have more experience as colonizers and seem somehow more sensitized to the associated issues of Han colonization, I prefer the Liberation story.  汉族 as the new pied-noir?

Coda 2: This translation of a Le Figaro dispatch from Istanbul analyzes the Xinjiang problem through the eyes of Uighur exiles in Turkey. My own poetic reflections on the destruction of Beijing’s Qianmen quarter, “The Foreigner’s Lament,” can be visited here.

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