Western Journalistic Confirmation Bias: Reporting on Kashgar’s Old Town Renewal Project

The Diplomat, 20 September 2016


By Patrik Meyer — What the Chinese government labels as a “Renovation [that] combines tradition and modernity” (CCTV) is described in Western media with headlines and ledes such as: “An Ancient Culture, Bulldozed Away” (The Washington Post), “To Protect an Ancient City, China Moves to Raze It” (The New York Times), “Tearing Down Old Kashgar: Another Blow to the Uighurs” (Time), “Bulldozers are to raze the mesmerising old town in the Chinese Silk Road city of Kashgar” (The Guardian), and “The Death of Old Kashgar” (Nick Oldstock) just to mention a few. Positive or neutral voices about the massive works transforming Kashgar Old Town (KOT) seem to be absent from the Western media.

As a tourist, these headlines resonate with me, too. I wish to keep the KOT untouched and to be able to wander along its narrow, shaded alleys lined by adobe houses. However, if I were responsible for the living conditions and safety of its residents, as well as for the modernization of Kashgar write large, then I would see Beijing’s transformation of the KOT in a more positive light. Given the almost unprecedented access I was granted between 2010 and 2013 to conduct ethno-political research in Xinjiang (including in Kashgar) and my robust background in civil engineering, I consider myself well positioned to provide a broader perspective on the issues raised by Western journalists when criticizing the KOT renewal project.

A simple survey of Western media outlets shows that harsh criticism of Beijing’s renewal of the KOT is built on four central arguments: demolition of Uyghur’s historical heritage, destruction of Uyghur’s social fabric, absence of Uyghurs voices in the project, and the sufficient seismic performance of existing houses. Moreover, Western journalists often argue that the goal of Beijing’s works in Kashgar is to weaken, or even erase Uyghur identity, not to improve their living conditions.

KOT’s historical value is indisputable, but it is not as significant as assumed by the Western media. While some houses are centennial, with charismatic courtyards and beautifully decorated wooden frames, the majority of the houses are a poorly built patchwork of old and new mud and masonry walls. Hence, while the old town as whole has significant historical value, many of its houses are not historically valuable. Additionally, Beijing’s renewal of the KOT has to be put in the context of China’s fast modernization, in which old towns all over China have been torn down to make way for efficient cities. Kashgar is one of the few Chinese cities where the old town is being partly preserved and remodeled following traditional standards. There is indeed some damage being caused to the Uyghurs’ historical heritage, but it is far less significant than what the Western media claims and it is intended to modernize Kashgar, not to “Demolish the Uyghur History” as argued by the Smithsonian.

The second dominant argument, the tearing apart the Uyghur identity, is also happening, but again, not to the extent and for the purpose that it is being reported in the West. China’s fast modernization results in numerous communities being reshaped and displaced, including the one in the KOT. However, when asked for their view about Beijing’s renewal of the KOT, most of its dwellers welcome it. And for good reasons. Their houses are often very small, poorly ventilated, dusty and dark, have no toilets, and are unpractical. It is those who do not live in the old – Uyghurs, tourist, and Western journalists – who are most critical of the renewal project. Hence, I believe that the KOT project is causing Uyghur identity to change, not its destruction as argued by the West.

As for the third argument, that the Uyghurs have no say in the project, it is again only partially correct. Their voice is indeed absent from the upper levels of the project’s decision making process. However, the majority of homeowners decide whether to stay or leave the KOT and how to proceed with the repair of their houses. They are offered three options to choose from, the first being to permanently move to a free, new apartment larger their old house. Second, they can opt to let the government tear down the old house and replace it with a new structure for free, which does not included finishing works such as flooring, windows, and decoration. During the time that this work is being done, the families can rent an apartment subsidized by the government at about US$900 per year. In case that the house is deemed to be structurally sound, the homeowners are given a subsidy (about US$90/m2) to upgrade the house themselves. Additional subsidies are also offered for those willing to finish the façade using traditional Uyghur style. While there might be some irregularities within this system, most homeowners affected by the renewal of the KOT have the choice to stay or leave, which the Western media seems to ignore.

Finally, a fourth dominant argument against Beijing’s KOT project is that the old town must be seismically safe because it has survived hundreds of years without being destroyed. Again, this is only partly true. There are a number of houses that were built properly over a hundred years ago, but the majority have been either poorly built or structurally modified in the last 30-50 years, making them prone to structural damage in case of a significant seismic event. Based on my expertise in seismic performance of adobe structures and my countless visits to the KOT, I can confirm that it is not feasible to retrofit most of its houses because their deficient structural condition.

Given that the Western media has repeatedly used four arguments that are grossly misinformed and taken out of context to attack Beijing’s KOT renewal project, it can be argued that such journalists’ analysis has been distorted by confirmation bias. Despite its shortcomings, most Uyghur dwellers of the Kashgar Old Town do welcome this renewal project that results in a significant improvement of their living conditions. Beijing’s KOT renewal project “combines tradition and modernity” (CCTV) and should be understood within China’s overall modernization aimed at improving people’s lives, including those of the Uyghurs. Not as a concerted attack on the Uyghurs’ history, social fabric, and identity.

Patrik K. Meyer, a New America Security Fellow and a Visiting Professor at Muhammadiyah University Yogyakarta, Indonesia.