The United Kingdom prides itself on respecting its diverse cultures and ethnicities. Such a sentiment does not much resonate in the People's Republic of China, whose authoritarian communist rulers are obsessed with unity and mistrustful of diversity. To Beijing, manifestations of cultural identity by China's many ethnic minorities are barely tolerated and only if they do not promote separatism or secession.
China’s astonishing meteoric rise to become the world’s second largest economy, with a global political and military outreach, has sadly not been matched with a concomitant rise in its respect for the fundamental human rights of its people or an increase in democratic accountability of its leadership. Much is written and known about China’s suppression of Tibetan culture or autonomy, its persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and unregistered Christian churches and even its censorship of the internet, but less is known about the planned destruction of an ancient and distinct cultural patrimony in its far western provinces.
It is probably this suspicion of non-Han Chinese cultures that has led the Chinese government to engage in an act of cultural vandalism – the wholesale demolition and rebuilding of the ancient city of Kashgar. This programme of destruction was recently the subject of a resolution in the European Parliament, which roundly condemned Beijing's action.
Kashgar lies on the Silk Road, and for around two thousand years has been a bustling, vibrant and cosmopolitan place and a city of international renown architecturally. Travellers still pass through Kashgar on their way west towards Central Asia or east towards the conurbations of modern-day China. Kashgar is also an important city to China's Uyghur Muslim minority, which is concentrated in Kashgar and throughout the province of Xinjiang, of which Kashgar is part.
Xinjiang is a province in which the Chinese government has, in the past, struggled to assert its authority and has not always historically been fully part of the Middle Kingdom. Uyghur Muslims possess a strong sense of their own identity and history, which has itself spawned a separatist movement with radicalised violent splinter groups such as the East Turkestan Liberation Front, rightly banned by the EU and USA as a terrorist organisation. Some elements of this movement have links to al-Qaeda and have tried to wage jihad against the Chinese state. We have no sympathy for and offer no support to these violent secessionists. However, it seems as though Beijing is now embarking on a cultural collective offensive against the Uyghurs in order not only to dampen separatist sentiment but seemingly also to destroy their cultural identity.
This in itself is nothing new. Ever since Tibet was invaded by China in 1949, Tibet's unique and ancient Buddhist culture has been systematically diluted at the expense of the 'mainstream' Han Chinese culture. What began with decades of organised resettling of Han Chinese on the Tibetan plateau has culminated in the building of a high-speed railway from Beijing to Lhasa. The recent vilification of the Dalai Lama following his retirement from the political frontline was also illustrative of the state's contempt for him and the cultural autonomy he has tirelessly sought for his people.
Beijing's approach to Kashgar is therefore true to form, not only with regard to minority cultures but ancient buildings in general (for example the destruction of most of the ancient Forbidden City and the wholesale razing of parts of Beijing to 'modernise' the city ahead of the 2008 Olympics).
Parts of Kashgar have already been irredeemably damaged by the Chinese government's 'dangerous house reform' programme of urban reconstruction. The plan, which is mooted to cost US$500m, was announced in 2009 and foresees the destruction of 85 per cent of the Old City. The demolished buildings will make way for modern apartment blocks and mixed Sino-Uyghur tourism sites.
The justification for the destruction of much of Kashgar was the inadequate protection afforded by the ancient buildings against earthquakes – but little thought, it seems, was given to alternative scenarios that would have kept Kashgar's unique architectural heritage alive.
Moreover, the communist government continues to exclude Kashgar from bids for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage status, such as the planned transnational application to achieve protection of several cultural sites on the Silk Road.
China is a country of great cultural diversity. In the past the interaction of these cultures made China a crucible of ideas and inventions. The Chinese government, however, seems to be almost in denial about the rich tapestry of Chinese culture and its unique contribution to global civilisation. We urge Beijing to think again about Kashgar, not least because to continue this vandalism would simply encourage more resentment among the restless Uyghur population and would also probably incite more separatist violence against the state.
Greg Hands MP has raised the threat to Kashgar, either on a stand-alone basis, or as part of a wider discussion about human rights in Central Asia, for example this debate in Parliament in 2006 and here. Charles Tannock MEP recently spoke in a debate on Kashgar in the European Parliament; his speech can be seen here. Charles is also President of the European Parliament-Taiwan Friendship Group.