A new resolution passed by the European Parliament lends weight to international calls for China to end the demolition of an ancient Uyghur city, but analysts do not expect it to have any impact on Beijing.
The resolution, passed by an overwhelming majority of members of the European Parliament last week, called on authorities in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to immediately end the forced resettlement of Kashgar city’s Uyghur population.
Beijing launched the resettlement program two years ago, moving to demolish up to 85 percent of Kashgar's Old City, apparently to build modern and "earthquake-safe" houses.
In a bid to protect the city from further destruction, the European resolution urged Beijing to consider including the city of Kashgar in a UNESCO project aimed at preserving the legendary Silk Road, one of the world's oldest and most historically important trade routes that had impacted the culture of China, Central Asia, and the West.
Beijing was asked to “assess the possibility of including the city of Kashgar in the joined application with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for the Silk Road’s UNESCO Heritage designation.”
But when asked if the resolution would influence the Chinese government to more carefully consider the preservation of the city, June Dreyer, professor of politics at the University of Miami, said, “In one word, no.”
“I don’t think that anything the European Parliament does, passes, says will influence the Chinese in any way at all,” she said.
“And of course the European Parliament’s move is seen as patently manipulative … and gross interference in another country’s domestic politics.”
Value of culture
She said that convincing the Chinese of Kashgar’s value as a tourist destination might cause Beijing to reconsider demolishing the city’s old quarter.
“But there already is a fair amount of tourist industry in the area and the Chinese don’t seem to pay much attention to that because the attitude seems to be, ‘Well, we’ll knock down these buildings and then we’ll build some new ones to look like the old ones.’”
Dreyer said the prospect of designating the city as a UNESCO Heritage site would not be enough to convince authorities to end the demolition, and that even if Beijing agreed to a designation, “What power does the United Nations have?”
She said China’s Han leadership doesn’t understand the value of preserving a culture different from its own.
“I wonder if this just isn’t an outgrowth of, ‘Our society is so superior that we don’t need to worry about petty niceties like this,’” she said.
“If you have nothing but contempt for the culture it came out of, I suppose it’s hard to perceive [the site’s significance].”
Chinese officials launched a multimillion dollar plan in late February 2009 to demolish nearly the whole of Kashgar's Old City, much of which was constructed using mud bricks.
At its completion, the five-year plan to build more modern and "earthquake-safe" houses in its place will have cost about 30 billion yuan (U.S. $4.39 billion), paid for by the central government and the local government in Xinjiang.
In the meantime, residents of Kashgar are being moved to apartment complexes built by the government.
Roughly 50,000 households, or more than 200,000 people, will be resettled, according to reports from Chinese media sources.
Kashgar prefecture Commissioner Akbar Kupur has referred to the demolition as a “renovation” designed to “preserve the original appearance of the ancient city.”
A sign posted in the old city quotes UNESCO’s cultural specialist in Beijing, Beatrice Kaldun, as praising the demolition and going as far as to say that the work is “deserving of admiration internationally,” though Kaldun herself has disputed the claim.
She says that after visiting the site in June 2009 she stressed UNESCO’s concerns about preserving cultural heritage at the site, though the sign neglected to include that quote.
Andrew Swan, program manager for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) in Brussels, said that the European Parliament resolution highlights these concerns, calling for new ways to be examined for a “more culturally sensitive renovation to take place.”
“The European Parliament has put the issue of Kashgar on its official record … For China, we hope that this means that they will understand … Kashgar [is] a city not only of Chinese importance, but of international importance,” he said.
Swan said that the Chinese authorities were within their rights to improve safety in an earthquake zone, but that the way in which they have chosen to do so is “completely inappropriate.”
“There exist technologies today which can provide increased levels of safety within these buildings while still retaining their cultural significance,” Swan said.
“Many of the buildings that we saw constructed by the Chinese in 2009 we believe are of a poor standard. And this does not give us confidence when we’re told that these resettlements are being done to improve safety,” he said.
“These people’s homes, often hundreds of years old, are destroyed, they are moved to concrete apartment blocks far from mosques or traditional community services, and then they have to spend additional money on furnishing and finishing the apartment.”
He appealed to Beijing to refrain from making a decision based on tensions in a region where ethnic riots between Han and Uyghurs left 200 dead in July 2009, according to official Chinese media.
“We hope that the resolution that was adopted today will lead to some greater consideration of culture not for political ends, but for humanity as a whole.”
Mehmet Tohti, a representative in Brussels of the exile World Uyghur Congress, called the European Parliament resolution “satisfactory” to his organization and to the Uyghur community worldwide.
“The resolution shows that the Chinese government has violated both international law and the Chinese constitution related to [the preservation of] cultural heritage … The resolution also demanded that the European Commission take action to protect Kashgar,” he said.
“Kashgar not only is an ancient city that is part of the Silk Road, it is also important for the Uyghur story—for culture, religion, and trade.”
Tohti noted that over the last 2,000 years, Kashgar served as a center for Uyghur intellectual life and as a capital for several Uyghur dynasties.
He said that in addition to sending a strong message to the Chinese government, the resolution has shown Uyghurs that they can count on the support of the international community.
“This resolution on Kashgar encourages the Uyghur people. It shows us that we have to protect the Uyghur culture and the environment it thrives in.”
Reported and translated by Jilil Musha for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.