Darkness has descended on the old town of Kashgar and it is time for the evening prayer, the last of the traditional five performed throughout the day. Turgum Amat kneels on his mat, facing Mecca. As he bows, murmuring his incantations, his small granddaughter plays at his feet.
Amat is an ethnic Uyghur, a Turkic Muslim minority who populate the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang and who speak in their own guttural tongue. By day he works as a security guard at the construction site of Kashgar’s tallest tower – an emblem of a fast-developing urban landscape. But by night he climbs the steep hill that overlooks the new city, past piles of rubble and rubbish, to what is left of a warren of alleyways in Kashgar’s historic Islamic centre. There he lives in a basic mud brick house alongside three generations of his family. Aged 56, with no education, Amat is exuberant about the prospect of change and his paycheque of rmb1,500 (€180) a month that has come with it. “With the growth of the modern city you can learn modern work,” he says, pouring tea. “If I stay at home nobody will give me a cent so I am proud to work there. It is difficult to find job at my age. I am very happy.”
Kashgar is located in China’s farthest western tip, ringed by the Tianshan mountains and the expansive Taklamakan desert. For more than two millennia the city served as a major trade route on the old Silk Road. Caravans of camels transported cumin and saffron, gold and gemstones between Constantinople and the ancient Chinese capital of Xian. But as shipping lanes replaced overland routes, Kashgar turned into a poor and dusty backwater.
Today, however, the city is experiencing a new economic boom spearheaded by the government. In 2010 Beijing designated Kashgar a special economic zone, aiming to mimic towns such as Shenzhen, a former fishing village that was transformed into a bustling city of 10 million in three decades. Once again, Kashgar is finding itself at the heart of a potentially lucrative logistics network – this time one that sees goods and minerals traded south from China to the ports of Pakistan.
But Kashgar is also on another frontier between the Muslim Uyghurs and the Han Chinese, who are flocking here to reap the benefits of the boom. As a result many Uyghurs complain of discrimination when looking for work and a lack of religious freedom under their authoritarian leaders (some are calling for a separate Uyghur state). Bloody riots and unrest have rocked the province. In 2009 nearly 200 people (mostly Han) were killed in Xinjiang’s capital Ürümqi. In August authorities shot dead 22 Uyghurs in an “anti-terror” raid; in October five suspects from Xinjiang were arrested after a vehicle crashed into tourists near Tiananmen Square.
Beijing hopes that by rapidly improving living standards in Kashgar it will soothe ethnic tensions and bring more prosperity to the wider province of Xinjiang, one of the poorest in China. And, in turn, by creating a more stable environment it can spur trade and the economy in a region that boasts rich oil and natural gas, cheap land and vast potential.
Tensions are visible in the landscape and layout of the city itself. The old town spreads out from the 15th century Id Kah mosque; in the bustling square outside women in headscarves gossip in clusters and vendors sell fresh figs. Crowds throng the surrounding streets: through an open door a man can be seen roasting a small mountain of lamb heads over a fire, their mouths fixed in gory grins; dentists, who advertise their wares through graphic illustrations of the human jaw with the skin peeled to reveal gum and teeth, are ubiquitous. But if the old town – with its winding streets, tumbledown mud houses, and raucous food markets – is the heart of Uyghur life, the adjacent new city is just like any other second or third tier Chinese town: a concrete jungle replete with malls and Mao statues.
Han ambitions have also materialised in a mass of yellow painted concrete buildings on the outskirts of Kashgar. It is expected that Guangzhou New City – a large wholesale market and recreational centre whose international trading section opened in September – will soon attract traders from eight neighbouring Central Asian countries. The incentives are tempting: the government is providing tax breaks, subsidised transport and rent-free stalls for the first three years. What’s more, the first direct flight between Islamabad and Kashgar, which launched in August, has dramatically reduced the travelling time between the two cities.
Yet Waseem Dubasum, a young Pakistani garment trader, believes it is political stability, rather than financial stimulus, that matters most. “Before it was politically difficult for the Chinese government to control this area,” he explains. “But now they have made some agreements that you will give us some business and we will give you cooperation and peace. If we had not seen this we would not have come here.”
It is a tension of which Han migrants are well aware. When asked what Kashgar was like to live in one boyish jade trader from central China shot back a little too quickly “very safe”, adding defensively: “This is like any other place in China.” Cheng Guojun, the Chinese chairman of Guangzhou New City’s International Commercial Street, is eager to back up this view. “I am very satisfied with the local people,” he says in his glass office, wiping away the sweat from his forehead with a tissue. He is also optimistic about development. “Before we came here this area only had the desert. But after we came we can help solve local unemployment problems.”
Back in the old city, Tursun Rustam, an affable 62-year-old illiterate potter, agrees. Rustam started mixing clay when he was just eight years old and never went to school. But for his children it is a different story: his daughter is a nurse and his son is aiming for a stable government job as a teacher. “If people from Eastern China come here they can bring techniques,” explains Rustam. “It is now not necessary to spend so much time to study and survive in Eastern China.”
It is also not only the Han Chinese getting rich: Ibrahm Musa, a jocular Uyghur businessman, has built a small empire in Kashgar’s construction and tourism industries. Musa lives in a grand villa with Western-style toilets, chandeliers and glittery pink curtains. Over tea he uncovers a throw on a low marble table to reveal a feast of biscuits, pistachio nuts, raisins and dried figs: a helper delivers freshly picked grapes from vines hanging outside. Musa’s ambition aged 13 was “to get wealthy”. He has succeeded: now in his sixties he owns 4,047 hectares of land and has 400 employees. Of his nine children he is planning to send the second youngest to America to study. “I am not interested in political questions,” he says.
But plenty are. And while Kashgar is making steps to turn itself into a new trading hub – a process that might take decades to come to fruition – modernity comes with sacrifice. Namely, the former charm of an ancient city is being lost as concrete malls, roads and squares encroach its historic borders. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kashgar’s old town, much of which has been demolished by the state. Families who lived there for generations have been relocated to new tower blocks that stretch into the distance on the city’s fringes. What is left has been turned into a tourist attraction with an entrance fee of rmb30 (€3.60). While children play barefoot in the unpaved streets, Chinese tourists with cameras snap pictures.
The plight of the old town has, for many, become synonymous with the dilution of Uyghur identity. A number of the residents are happy to exchange cramped quarters with no plumbing or heating for modern apartments. But others do not want to go. An elderly baklava maker – who sells his sticky fare to tourists from his front door – has lived in his home for three decades. “I like it here,” he says passionately, gesturing up at the vines hanging above his head. “I have six sheep on the roof. Do you think it’s possible to keep sheep in an apartment?” In the new part of town sits another potent symbol of China’s control: a giant statue of Chairman Mao that stands over the city’s main square. Posters nearby show kitsch scenes of rainbows, doves and dancing Uyghurs. But the rows of police vans stationed next door betray a more complicated reality.
Alimjan (who asked that his real name not be published for fear of reprisals) is a 28-year-old biology graduate with ambitions to work as a researcher. Sitting on the edge of the square, keeping one eye on the policeman and another on his burning cigarette, he speaks with urgency. “Since I’m a Uyghur it is much harder for me to find a job than a Chinese,” he says in perfect English. “Sometimes I feel like a second class citizen but I try to ignore that. I did academically much better than my Chinese classmates but even if I do meet some difficulties in finding a job, if I work hard I can still get a better life.”
Alimjan believes things have improved, particularly since the 2009 riots (his brother’s salary, for example, has doubled). He also worries about how Uyghur traditions will continue. While school provided him with opportunities, he was not allowed to perform his prayers on campus. And while he would like to see a separate Uyghur state he fears it would result in too much bloodshed. “What should I do?” he asks sadly. “Can I be a terrorist? No, I want to be a good human being. All I can do is prepare well for my [job] exams. I have become practical."
Nick Holdstock, author of The Tree That Bleeds – A Uighur Town on the Edge, believes that the right question to ask is not whether Kashgar’s economy is developing but who it is benefiting. With Beijing pouring billions of dollars into Kashgar, the city’s infrastructure has improved dramatically. Trade with Central Asia will no doubt further advance the region. But Holdstock argues it will not necessarily make a difference for the local Uyghurs who will “face competition from firms in inner China who have relocated to Kashgar”.
Many of these Han companies want to hire staff with similar backgrounds and ethnicity (around half of 161 positions recently advertised on a Civil Servant Examination Information website denoted only native Mandarin speakers and Han Chinese need apply). In 2008 the energy industry generated 57 per cent of Xinjiang’s gdp but only drew one per cent of its workforce from the Uyghur population (a factor that helped lead to the riots). Crucially, while life standards and employment prospects are improving in Kashgar the vast majority of unrest occurs in the countryside where poverty continues to blight the Uyghur population.
Still, for people like Amat, the security guard working on Kashgar’s tallest building, even basic changes for the better are something to be thankful for. As the night draws to a close he makes a small tut tut sound between his teeth, gesturing at the children still running around. “The youngest today don’t understand the value of food. When we were children it was sometimes very difficult to get any bread,” he says. “But right now on this table there is food for us to eat and there are enough clothes for us to wear.” For him, at least, that is enough. Whether it will be for others is yet to be seen.