Save Kashgar‘s Old Town!

Society for Threatened Peoples, 1 May 2010

Society for Threatened Peoples — The Old Town of the city of Kashgar, which is over 2000 years old, in the north-west of China is threatened with destruction. In the coming five years about 200,000 people are to be re-housed in so-called  earthquake-proof apartment buildings. The project, which began on 27th February 2009, involves the destruction of 85 percent of the basic fabric, which is centuries old. Kashgar has the reputation of being the most important Islamic town in central Asia in terms of cultural history. Only 15 percent of the old houses are to be retained in the framework of an open-air museum to present to the 1.5 million tourists from home and abroad the old Islamic culture.

The people affected have not been properly brought into the process of planning the project. Those affected complain that they are not given adequate information on the forthcoming resettlement. Most of the inhabitants were surprised by the arrival of the bulldozers on 27th February 2009. By the middle of June 2009 some 5 percent of the Old Town, including several districts and streets had been destroyed.

The Chinese authorities justify the project as protection of the people against earthquakes, an improvement in living conditions and the lack of water required by the fire-brigade in case of a large fire. Structural engineers and people who know the country do not see this as a sound argument. For many of the houses built of mud and wattle have a history of several hundred years and have already survived many earthquakes. Structural engineers and residents point out that it is precisely the use of wooden supports which renders the mud-built houses capable of buffering the seismic shock. The six-storey new apartment houses in which the residents of the Old Town are to be re-housed are, contrary to the projections put forward by the authorities, not earthquake-proof in the light of unsatisfactory construction practice. In the catastrophic earthquake in the province of Sichuan, which in May caused the death of some 90,000 people, it was construction deficits which led principally to the high number of dead.

Were the authorities only concerned to improve the living conditions of the residents of the Old Town they would not need to tear down the houses but could renovate them and keep them in repair. Good experience was made with a project of this kind in the old Tibetan capital of Lhasa at the end of the 1990s with the Tibet Heritage Fund, which contributed to the refurbishment of dozens of houses with international financial support. Many countries would surely also be prepared to provide generous support to viable ways of saving the original structures in Kashgar.

However China’s authorities have evidently no interest in the maintenance of Kashgar’s old appearance. It is true that in 1986 they declared “the Cairo of the East”, as Kashgar is often called in admiration, to be a “Chinese city of historical and cultural importance”. But in their efforts together with their central Asian neighbours to have “the Silk Road” registered as a world cultural legacy in the sense of the World Cultural Heritage Convention of the World Culture organisation UNESCO they ignored the Old Town of Kashgar. This certainly goes in the face of the spirit of the World Cultural Heritage Convention, but the controversy over Kashgar also shows the limits of this convention. So a cultural monument of world heritage format cannot be properly protected if the state concerned, in which the cultural object lies, is not prepared to have the monument registered in the World Heritage list. It seems likely that China will issue conservation orders for some 48 cultural sites in the People’s Republic in its application for registration of the Silk Road as World Cultural Heritage at the World Heritage Commission in 2011. The interest lies mainly on burial places, caves and the remains of the Great Wall.

The report can be read in full here.