Monday, August 08, 2011

Kashgar's changing, but scars remain

KASHGAR: The call to prayer echoes across the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, drawing believers into the main mosque under the watchful eyes of armed police, as building cranes loom in the distance. It is the end of a day of fasting in this old trading post between the East and the West - a remote city in north-western China's Xinjiang region that is reeling from recent deadly attacks that laid bare long-standing ethnic tensions. Undaunted, the authorities are pressing ahead with plans to turn the restive city into a modern economic powerhouse - to the dismay of many of the mainly Muslim Uighur minority, who fear it will have serious repercussions for them. 'This Kashgar is a new Kashgar. It is no longer an old city. Our culture is gone,' said a 24-year-old Uighur shopkeeper who refused to be named. The Chinese communist government said the 7 billion yuan (S$1.3 billion) project aims to improve the living standards of inhabitants of the old city, where it said many of the insalubrious houses would topple in an earthquake. 'Kashgar is located in a seismic zone, so it is important that all houses are earthquake-safe. Our (new) houses can withstand an 8-magnitude earthquake,' said Mr Aysajan Ahat, an official in charge of the project. But Uighurs who live there pointed out that the old buildings have stood firm for hundreds of years. Elsewhere in the city, high-rise buildings are springing up everywhere. A scale model of what planners want the city to look like - on display at an exhibition - shows the old town surrounded by a sea of modern tower blocks. Last year, the government designated Kashgar as a special economic zone, keen to boost investment in a city that stands at the crossroads of central and southern Asia. It wants to push the city's annual gross domestic product growth rate, which already exceeds 20 per cent, to 25 per cent over the next nine years, and plans to increase the population from the current 600,000 to a million by 2030. Already, migrants from other parts of China - many of them members of the majority Han ethnic group - have moved to Kashgar, lured by the prospect of making money in the fast-growing city. Mr Wu Shushuang, 26, who sells steel products, is originally from the eastern province of Anhui, but ended up in Kashgar this year after making his way west from Shanghai. 'I make 20,000 yuan a month compared with just 2,000 yuan before,' he said. But this influx has fuelled resentment among Xinjiang's roughly eight million Uighurs, many of whom complain that Han Chinese get better jobs and pay. They also say that traditional Uighur culture is being diluted deliberately. 'Some Uighurs go to university, they graduate, come back and can't find jobs. These all go to the Han. And even when they do find jobs, their salaries are low,' one Uighur man said. This resentment has spilled over into bloody violence, almost always directed at Han Chinese or security forces. In July 2009, mobs of Uighurs attacked Han Chinese in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, and Han Chinese retaliated. Nearly 200 died. And on July 30-31, ethnic tensions once again burst to the fore when at least 20 people were killed in two attacks in Kashgar, which is about 90 minutes' flying time from Urumqi. The Chinese government blames much of the violence in Xinjiang on separatist forces, but some experts said there is little evidence that organised terrorist groups operate in the region, adding that unrest stems from economic frustrations. Many Uighurs do not speak Mandarin and have low levels of education. Two of the suspects allegedly involved in the recent attacks in Kashgar, for instance, did not get past primary school. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE