Demolition of Kashgar’s Old City Draws Concerns Over Cultural Heritage Protection

Authorities in a city in western China have launched a demolition project that has undermined the preservation of a cornerstone of the Uyghur ethnic group’s cultural heritage and will result in the resettlement of roughly half the city’s population. Official Chinese media have described the project to “reconstruct” the historic Old City section of Kashgar, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), as a way to address infrastructure shortcomings and to guard against risk of earthquake damage. Chinese sources indicate that most of the existing buildings in the Old City will be demolished rather than restored. Overseas media have reported that authorities have undertaken the project despite opposition from local residents and have compelled residents to leave their homes, with reported cases of inadequate compensation. While reflecting ongoing problems across China with property seizure, resettlement, and heritage protection, the Kashgar demolition project also reflects features unique to the region. The XUAR is a government-designated ethnic minority autonomous region with legal protections for ethnic minority rights, including protections for culture and cultural heritage, but in practice, central and local government authorities exert tight controls in the region that undermine the protection of residents’ rights and also impede available avenues for challenging government actions. Implementation of the project, which had been in the planning stages for several years, also coincides with a period of heightened repression in the region since early 2008. See Section IV–Xinjiang in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) 2008 Annual Report for general information on conditions in the region and see below for more information and analysis of the Kashgar project.

Chinese Government and Chinese Media Accounts of the Project–50,000 Households To Be Resettled

Under a 30 billion yuan (US$4.39 billion) project launched in late February with funds from the central and XUAR governments, authorities will “reconstruct” the Old City of Kashgar within a five-year period and resettle roughly 50,000 households, or more than 200,000 people, according to reports from Chinese government and media sources. Based on the reports, the number of people affected approaches half of the Kashgar city population. (For information on the planning stages of the project, see an August 13, 2008, report from the Kashgar district government Web site describing a meeting of government and Communist Party officials to address construction plans. For reports from the initial stages of construction and resettlement in February, see February 27 reports from Xinjiang Daily and Xinjiang News Net (1, 2), and a February 28 report from China News Net. For subsequent reporting, see a March 27 article from the Kashgar district government Web site, detailed report from Yaxin dated March 23, May 27 report from Xinhua Xinjiang, and June 8 Yaxin report. Figures on the exact number of people and households affected, as reported in these articles, varies.) According to the August report from the Kashgar district government, the project to “reconstruct” the Old City has received longstanding central government attention, and the impetus to implement it came after the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. The Yaxin article reported that nearly 60% of the Old City houses, made of clay and wood, date from the 1950s and 1960s, and that poor construction has impeded infrastructure improvements and made the area vulnerable to earthquake damage. The information in the Yaxin report conflicts with earlier government reporting on the age of the buildings in the Old City. A 2007 report on the Kashgar district government Web site describes many of the buildings as older than 400 years old and describes most individual residences as more than 50 to 80 years old, with some as old as 150 years old.

Demolition and Resettlement Plans Linked to Ethnic Issues

In addition to stated concerns about earthquakes, the first February 27 Xinjiang News Net report said the dangers posed by the buildings also affected factors including “economic development, ethnic unity, and the reinforcement of Xinjiang’s borders.” In the August article, a government official also raised political concerns, describing Kashgar as an area where Uyghurs are most heavily concentrated and an area in the “front ranks” in the XUAR’s fight against separatism, terrorism, and infiltration.

According to the February articles and March Yaxin article, the first group of residents affected by the initial stages of the project have been resettled in earthquake-proof high-rises in a suburb of the city. The Yaxin article reported that all the Old City families resettled as a result of the project will receive monetary compensation or replacement housing. Authorities will also take measures to establish businesses to help sustain the livelihoods of relocated populations, according to the report. The August 2008 article reported that some 23,000 subsistence-level and lower-income households affected by the project would “mainly be provided with low-cost rental housing or affordable housing to facilitate relocation,” while residents “with resources but unwilling to leave” would receive subsidies for building new earthquake-proof housing on site or elsewhere. According to the August report, as of that date, the XUAR government already had re-designated townships in the Kashgar suburbs as towns and begun converting farmland in preparation for resettling affected populations. The report described efforts to distribute propaganda materials and launch “ideological mobilization” to garner support for the project. See also the March 23 Yaxin report for additional information on mobilizing support for the project by broadcasting images of the Sichuan earthquake. Overseas media reports, citing local residents, have challenged the adequacy of compensation and scope of local support for the project. See below for details.

Earlier plans to address infrastructure in the Old City date to a 2001 “Implementing Project for Safeguarding the Famous Historical and Cultural City of Kashgar and Taking Precautions to Quake-Proof the Old City” according to the Yaxin report. (See the 2007 Kashgar government report for additional information on earlier efforts to address the issue starting in 1999.) The 2001 project planned to invest 600 million yuan (US$87.8 million) into reinforcing and safeguarding key residences and relics, but came to a halt due to various factors including funding, according to the Yaxin report. Under existing efforts launched since 2001 to earthquake-proof the area, 2,500 households already have moved to earthquake-resistant housing, according to the second Xinjiang News Net report and a February 2 report from the Kashgar district government Web site. Authorities also have carried out other efforts to demolish and reconstruct parts of Kashgar. See, e.g., a July 16, 2005, Telegraph article on demolitions near the Id Kah mosque.

Preservation Efforts Minimal–Most Buildings To Be Demolished

Details of the Kashgar demolition project indicate shortcomings in both the project’s capacity to protect the cultural heritage of the Old City as well as in the Chinese government’s overall framework for cultural heritage protection, including as it relates to ethnic minorities’ right to preserve their culture. At the August 2008 meeting to discuss the “reconstruction” of the Old City, as reported in the August 2008 article, officials indicated that efforts to preserve existing structures would be minimal. While authorities from various government agencies took part in the meeting, no officials from cultural heritage offices were reported to attend. Speaking at the event, the Kashgar district Communist Party secretary described the “reconstruction” of the Old City as a “human-centered” project and stressed that “what [the project] will protect is a construction style with ethnic features, and what it won’t protect is dangerous old raw earth houses that endanger the people’s safety.” Noting that the Old City contained the world’s largest complex of raw earth structures, a government official spoke of the importance of preserving the “historical style and regional features” of the Old City, but cautioned against wide-scale preservation:

The reconstruction of the Old City must take place under the premise of protecting historical and regional features, but some experts and scholars propose retaining the original appearance of Kashgar’s Old City, and we think that [view] is out of touch with reality. Preservation of the people’s lives, property, and safety must be placed first. Otherwise, if a fairly large earthquake strikes, not only will the people’s lives and property receive damage, but the historic area will similarly be destroyed in a flash. Moreover, according to general surveys, buildings in the Old City with real historic preservation value are very few. We’ll resolutely protect the buildings with historic preservation value, but we can’t take every old and shabby building and keep them all. The facts will inevitably show that the Old City after its reconstruction not only will not have destroyed the Uyghurs’ history and culture but will have inherited and developed the Uyghurs’ history and culture. Using the excuse of protecting the history and culture of a famous old city to impede the Old City’s restructuring shows extreme irresponsibility toward the safety of the lives of the 220,000 Old City residents of all ethnicities.

The official added that recently constructed buildings would be renovated to make them earthquake-proof, while the “few” buildings with preservation value would be repaired and reinforced. The official did not provide details on the process of determining which buildings have preservation value. According to a May 27 New York Times article, officials report that at least 85 percent of the area will be demolished. Authorities cited in the article said they would rebuild some parts of the Old City using a “Uyghur style” of architecture, in line with the Kashgar district Communist Party secretary’s statement on using “a construction style with ethnic features.” The statements did not provide additional information on how such “ethnic features” or “Uyghur styles” are defined. (For an example of interpretations of “Islamic-style” architecture and “ethnic character” within a reconstruction project in a Hui Muslim neighborhood in Beijing, see pp. 146-148 within Daniel B. Abramson, “The Aesthetics of City-scale Preservation Policy in Beijing,” Planning Perspectives, Vol. 22, No. 2 (April 2007): 129-166.) According to a book cited in the New York Times article, describing Kashgar before the Old City demolition, “Kashgar is the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia” (George Michell, Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road, Frances Lincoln, 2008, p. 79). The 2007 report from the Kashgar government Web site also stressed the historic character of the Old City and expressed support for preservation principles.

The government official did not address how the determination that few buildings hold preservation value relates to Kashgar’s designation as a national-level historic and cultural city with historic districts within the Old City. Kashgar received the designation in 1986, as recorded in a government notice from that year. (See also the 2007 Kashgar government report for information on historic districts within the city.) The 1986 designation adheres to a 1982 notice on preserving cities with historic value or significance to China’s modern revolutionary history. Since then, the Chinese government has codified its process for designating and protecting historic cities into a Regulation on the Protection of Famous Historic and Cultural Cities, Towns, and Villages (Historic Cities Regulation). Both the Historic Cities Regulation and article 14 of the broader Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage call for preservation efforts for designated historic areas, and article 28 of the Historic Cities Regulation specifically forbids new construction or expansion in the centers of historic districts, with the exception of infrastructure installation. The article also details the procedures for gaining permission to carry out construction. Despite stipulating protections for historic areas, some provisions within the regulation are poorly defined, thus appearing to permit wide latitude in determining what kind of structures qualify for legal protections. For example, article 47(1) of the Historic Cities Regulation defines historic architecture (which is protected under the regulation) to mean certain structures designated by the government that “have definite preservation value and can reflect historical styles and regional features.” The regulation does not detail how or by whom “preservation value” and ethnic and local “features” are defined, calling into question the capacity of Chinese law for effective cultural heritage preservation, including as it accords with ethnic minorities’ right to define and protect their culture, and the state’s obligation to secure this right.

In the case of the Kashgar project, ambiguities in the framework for heritage protection contribute to the formal leeway for authorities to take a narrow view of which structures have historic value and qualify for protection, thus removing most of the buildings in the Old City from the formal protections of the Historic Cities Regulation. Authorities also have excluded possible international mechanisms to preserve the Old City that would have come with its inclusion on a list of proposed Silk Road locations for entry in the UNESCO World Heritage List. (The Silk Road list’s proposed sites include cities, but exclude locations within Kashgar except for the tomb of Mehmud Qeshqeri.) See the New York Times article for additional information. The Chinese government has formally committed itself to preserve its cultural heritage not only through its domestic legislation but also through its ratification of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

Details of the project also suggest that authorities have bypassed ways to protect Old City residents’ safety while preserving existing buildings. Standards set by professionals in the field of cultural heritage preservation indicate compatibility between historic preservation and measures to guard against natural disaster. Articles 10 and 14 of the Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas, adopted by the non-governmental International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and available on its Web site, recognize the importance of introducing “contemporary elements” and preventative measures against natural disasters while ensuring they are “adapted to the specific character of the properties concerned.” Scholar Ronald Knapp, cited in a May 3 National report, said that in the case of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, problems came about “more from very poor ‘modern’ construction rather than the shortcomings of traditional practices.”

XUAR Residents, NGO, Overseas Observers Object to Project

Reports from overseas media have indicated opposition to the project from local residents and some local officials, as well as concerns from local residents and outside observers about housing resettlement and historic preservation. A report from a Beijing-based NGO also has expressed concern about historic preservation and raised questions about procedural aspects of the project. (See the May 27 New York Times article, May 3 National report, March 25 and April 2 reports from Radio Free Asia (RFA), a March 24 Washington Post article, March 24 Uyghur American Association (UAA) press release, March 26 South China Morning Post article (subscription required), April 3 article from openDemocracy, and undated report from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center.) An official from the Kashgar cultural relics management office, cited in the April 2 RFA report, said that the project was being implemented without adequate attention to historic preservation, and another official expressed concern about resettled residents’ ability to sustain their livelihoods, many of which were tied to workshops within the Old City. The UAA press release raised concerns that the population resettlement would increase government capacity to “control and monitor Uyghur activity” and pressure Uyghurs to assimilate. The openDemocracy article questioned the nature of future reconstruction in the city given a track record of co-opting cultural practices and redeveloping ethnic minority areas elsewhere in China to boost tourism. Kashgar was designated one of “China’s superior tourist cities” in 2004, according to a report that year from Tianshan Net. Authorities plan to rebuild part of the Old City as an “international heritage scenery” site to attract tourism, according to the National article.

Information from overseas reports also raise questions about the process of consulting with residents on the project and on adequate compensation. Two men cited in the National report said they had received no information about compensation and did not know where they would be relocated to, while other sources said that the government had not consulted with them about the demolition. Some Kashgar residents cited in the New York Times article said that compensation amounts were inadequate. Sources cited in both the Washington Post article and March 25 RFA report indicated dissatisfaction with the project but said they lacked the means to challenge the government. A source cited in the RFA article noted that people felt scared to voice their opinions. China’s Historic Cities Regulation specifies that authorities must solicit opinions from the public for restructuring projects (article 29). International standards also carve out a role for public input in preservation projects. Article 17(c) of UNESCO’s Recommendation Concerning the Safeguarding and Contemporary Role of Historic Areas calls for authorities to include the opinions and participation of the public. Article 3 of the ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas states, “The participation and the involvement of the residents are essential for the success of the conservation programme and should be encouraged. The conservation of historic towns and urban areas concerns their residents first of all.” Article 5 states, “The conservation plan should be supported by the residents of the historic area.”

The report from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a Beijing-based Chinese NGO, emphasized the preservation value of the Old City and expressed concern about procedural aspects of the project. The report noted the lack of detailed information on preservation efforts, including the full text of the city’s preservation plan. Chapter 3 of the Historic Cities Regulation stipulates that the governments of areas designated as historic cities must prepare and implement a preservation plan. The regulation also details other procedural steps necessary to alter designated historic areas. See, for example, articles 28 – 32 on provisions regarding infrastructure construction in designated historic areas. A December 12, 2008, article from the Kashgar government reports that officials submitted plans for the current reconstruction project to examination by scholars, which adheres to article 29 of the regulation.

Shortcomings in Property Protection

The complaints by residents affected by the project reflect continuing problems with property seizure and resettlement in China. China’s 2007 Property Law, which protects private property rights, addresses expropriation of and compensation for property (article 42). As noted in a recent examination of the law by legal scholar Mo Zhang, however, “the Property Law sets no standard or requirement to guarantee a fair and just process for the taking.” (Mo Zhang, “From Public to Private: The Newly Enacted Chinese Property Law and the Protection of Property Rights in China,” Berkeley Business Law Journal, Vol. 5, 2008, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-39, p. 360, available through the Social Science Research Network Web site.) The Property Law also lacks a clear standard for “what constitutes the public interest to justify a taking” (p. 361). Among existing regulations that address takings, Zhang notes that the Urban Housing Demolition and Relocation Management Regulation “has a focus on the advancement of urban development, and as such it does not make the fair process for takings a priority. On the contrary, it has a bias against owners of households.” (p. 360.)

Curbs Over Uyghurs’ Rights

While underscoring shortcomings in cultural heritage preservation and continuing problems with property seizure and resettlement in China, the Kashgar demolition project also draws attention to broader problems in China’s policies in ethnic minority areas and in the XUAR in particular. Although the XUAR is an officially designated ethnic minority autonomous region with legally stipulated guarantees for “ethnic minorities’ right to administer their internal affairs” (Preamble, Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law) and measures to protect ethnic minority culture and cultural heritage, the Kashgar project highlights the failure of the government to protect such rights in practice. (For specific Chinese legal provisions on ethnic minorities that focus on cultural heritage protection, see, e.g., article 38 of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and article 25 of Provisions on Implementing the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law.) The project, noted by a source in the New York Times article to have “unusually strong backing high in the government,” accompanies longstanding policies of control over the Uyghur population, including harsh security measures and steps to dilute ethnic identity and promote assimilation, as noted in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2008 Annual Report and recent CECC analyses (1, 2, 3). The level of repression in the region undermines residents’ ability to protect their rights, even as more space for challenging government abuses has opened up in China.

Additional Resources

  • For more information on responses within China to the project, see a survey posted on the Bulletin Board Service (BBS) of the Uyghur-language Web site (also available in Latin script on the Uyghur American Association Web site’s discussion forum). See also a discussion on the BBS of the Uyghur-language Web site Diyarim.
  • For more information on China’s framework for historic preservation and an examination of preservation projects in Beijing, see Daniel B. Abramson, “The Aesthetics of City-scale Preservation Policy in Beijing,” Planning Perspectives, Vol. 22, No. 2 (April 2007): 129-166 and Daniel B. Abramson, “Beijing’s Preservation Policy and the Fate of the Siheyuan,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Fall 2001): 7-22.
  • For more information on property rights, see the CECC Virtual Academy page on Property Rights Resources.
  • For more information on China’s legal framework for ethnic minority rights, see the “Special Focus” section within the CECC 2005 Annual Report and Section II–Ethnic Minority Rights in the CECC 2007 and 2008 Annual Reports.
  • For information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV–Xinjiang, in the CECC 2008 Annual Report.

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