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Disappearing: The old wall of Kashgar 

Kashgar is in China — but along Vegetable Market Road they greet each other as Muslims, with a hand over the heart. "Peace be upon you," mutter voices in a bearded crowd as worshippers briskly trot off to the mosque on a hungry Ramadan evening. They wear box-like, embroided skullcaps and do not look Chinese. Nor do the giggling children who dart across mud-brick alleys, nor do their mothers in brown knotted burqas. Donkeys tug carts of wool and rickshaw mopeds honk through dirty, crowded thoroughfares. The air smells of roasting meat-sticks and gasoline. 

This could be anywhere in Islamic Central Asia — were it not for the blinking cranes in the twilight, the Mandarin script and the bulldozers remorselessly demolishing an antique town. Turn off at any corner of Vegetable Market Road and you'll face mounds of rubble, debris and empty squares of dust flecked by trash. Ultra-modern high-rises loom on placards that show the future. Old Kashgar and its way of life are living on borrowed time. 

The Chinese government is destroying the mud-brick maze of traditional Kashgar to cement control over its rebellious Turkic natives. They call themselves the Uighurs and are an 11-million-strong nation, more populous than Sweden or Austria, whose nomadic ancestors wandered from the shores of Lake Baikal 1,000 years ago. Uighur horseman once ruled vast stretches of the steppe and Uighur kings grew fat from the Silk Roads that criss-crossed their deserts. 

"The beauty of the temples, monasteries, wall paintings, statues, towers, gardens, housings and the palaces built throughout the kingdom cannot be described," gushed the tenth-century Chinese diplomat Wange Yande. Little remains of the trading kingdoms that helped bring Buddhism to East Asia and oriental luxuries to the Caliphate and Europe. Just hollow ruins in the desert, and, of course, the Uighurs themselves. 

Power drills and hammers echo through Kashgar. The authorities have set a target of 85 per cent demolition for the old town. The remaining 15 per cent has already been turned into a ticketed tourist attraction. Communist planners have renamed Kashgar — now the more Chinese-sounding Kashi — and are erecting a modern business hub. Minutes from Vegetable Market Road, traffic jams clog glass and steel commercial avenues, shoppers roam well-stocked malls and Chinese tourists peruse a new pastiche "Islamic style" block around the mosque. All roads are wide enough for two tanks abreast. Flanked by a score of fluttering red flags, a bullying mega-statue of Chairman Mao menaces the main square. 

Cut out culturally and physically from the new Kashi, the 220,000 residents of old Kashgar are being relocated to a faceless and manageable estate on the outskirts called the "Happy Garden". The authorities have ignored both petitions and appeals from historians and the people behind the hugely successful film The Kite Runner, which was filmed in Kashgar. The Chinese Communist Party has always been unsentimental about buildings. 

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Riaz Ahmad
October 24th, 2010
7:10 PM
Though a welcome news, the west is taking note of the demands of Uighurs and Tibetans in China, but it is rather strange. Palestinians, Kashmiris and Chechnians are in exactly in the same boat, but the west is not even remotely interested. It is rather odd that the west is interested in the human rights of Chinese minorities, yet they aid and abet in trampling the rights of Gazans. Going by the reality on the ground, could it be that human rights are nothing but a political tool working in the service of vested interest? Perhaps Ben Judah's propagandist instincts know better.

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