When in late August an earthquake dismantled a secluded portion of Central Italy, the country’s politicians were reminded, once again, of the peril of underappreciating the value of prevention. Entire towns collapsed following a series of shocks that would have barely scathed earthquake-resistant houses in Japan. While government funds directed to the restructuring of houses had not been absent, these funds had been misused, leaving ancient buildings off-guard.
Counterintuitively, the fall of a city does not only originate from politicians’ failure to prevent, but may also be encouraged by prevention itself. During the past two decades, this has been the unfortunate fate faced by Kashgar, a Chinese city on the western edge of the Taklamakan desert, in the region of Xinjiang.
Kashgar planted its first roots in Xinjiang approximately 2,000 years ago, successfully transforming itself into a key market on the Silk Road thanks to its advantageous geographical location. For centuries, Kashgar’s cultural identity was more closely tied to Central Asia and the Islamic faith than to the rest of China. Nonetheless, as last week’s article explains, when the Uighur’s short-lived bout of independence ended in 1949, the People’s Republic of China began a process of annexation centred on the region’s cultural assimilation by encouraging mass migrations of Han Chinese towards the Western province of Xinjiang. One of the largest statues of Mao Zedong existing in China was erected in a square in Kashgar, epitomizing the country’s interest in asserting its strict rule in the region. Today, the statue still stands to propagate the controversial heritage of a ruler who has entered history with an aura of respectability uncommon for dictators associated with mass atrocities.
A Multi-Faceted Prevention
In 1902, a devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake shocked Kashgar, confirming that the city’s foundations rested in an area prone to the planet’s insubordinations. Since the 1980s, Kashgar’s old city centre has undergone a drastic modernisation process to protect buildings from future earthquakes. By 2012, approximately eighty per cent of the old city quarter had been demolished. In its place, modern midrise apartments had been constructed together with larger avenues.
In the 2007 film The Kite Runner, based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel, the director Mar Foster used Kashgar to depict Kabul in the 1970s. Before Kashgar was intensely re-drawn in the years between 2009 and 2012, the city’s features had been drenched in patterns revealing a distinct Islamic identity. Today, these features remain far blander than in the past.
The International Scientific Committee on Earthen Architectural Heritage has condemned the Chinese government by arguing that its reconstruction plans have failed to balance the commitment to prevent damage from future earthquakes with the need to preserve the city’s identity. Uighur protesters have often voiced their belief that the modernization of Kashgar has been guided by the government’s interest in constraining their resistance. The reconstruction of Kashgar has in fact cancelled an important element of Uighurs’ cultural identity by eliminating the historical testimony that distinguished this minority from the rest of China. The substitution of Islamic architecture with modern apartments may in fact be part of a process to force Uighurs to conform to the mono-cultural identity that China’s Communist Party has repeatedly attempted to forge across the country. Additionally, as compensations have languished, Uighurs have often been unable to purchase the newly built homes. This has favoured a relocation of Uighur communities towards gated neighbourhoods outside of Kashgar, which the police may monitor more easily with the use of checkpoints and QR codes placed on doors.
The End of History
Chinese officials have earned a reputation for prioritizing their goals over the preservation of historical sites. The Communist Party’s ability to relocate its citizens across China largely originates from land ownership rules, which allow the government to have the upper hand when needed. Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, for instance, faced a similar fate to Kashgar in the 1990s. When looking beyond Uighur-dominated lands, ancient Hutong areas in Beijing were eradicated to build the sites for the 2008 Olympics, leading to an exodus of displaced inhabitants. In the long run, China may struggle to retrace its history if the party’s current mind-set perseveres.
Author’s Note to Reader: While conducting the research necessary to write this post I found an interesting and abandoned blog at http://www.bricoleurbanism.org/. I strongly recommend it to those who enjoy the artsiness of city maps.