China – Farewell to Kashgar

The two stories Farewell to Kashgar (2004) and The Transformation of Xinjiang (2001) about China’s Far West – more precisely about the mineral-rich Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Kashgar, the famous Silk Road oasis town and hotspot of the 19th century’s Great Game – were photographed despite the travel restrictions put in place for fear of insurrection when the purge of all but the mildest expressions of the Islamic faith and any yearning at all for an independent Uighur homeland had just begun.

For Kashgar the death knell came with the launch of the “Great Western Development Strategy” (a.k.a. “Open-Up-The-West Program”) in 2000. Since then, Han administrators have unleashed a campaign to turn Kashgar into a city indistinguishable from any other in China. It is here that Beijing’s policy of massive, concerted indoctrination and coerced sociocultural re-engineering in Muslim Xinjiang is most visible, and with it the eradication of Muslim Uighur culture – a crime that amounts to “cultural genocide.”

In 2018, a UN human rights panel cited a World Uighur Congress report, according to which more than one million people – Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims, and other Muslim minorities – were being held in counter-extremism centers, raising concerns that China had turned Xinjiang into “a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy.” The government denied the scale of the detentions, but acknowledged that “religious extremist” Uighurs were undergoing re-education and resettlement. It depicted the crackdown as a successful program to quash extremism and the separatist movement and compared the practice to that applied by Washington in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, thus invoking the “War on Terror” to justify the repression as well as the human rights violations that have come with it since it was introduced in 2014.

Kashgar (officially Kashi) is China’s westernmost city. Situated where the Kunlun and the Tianshan ranges meet and very close to the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the city was a crossroads of the medieval Silk Road. From here the routes led southward across the Karakorum to India and westward through the Alai corridor to Bactria in present day Afghanistan – and from there to Persia and ultimately the Mediterranean. Because of its geographic location, Kashgar had been a major caravan stop and trading place since ancient times and kept its oriental look well into the 20th century.

The maze of traditional dwellings in the Old Town has now been replaced by new buildings and the famous bazaar has been moved outside the city walls, which have been torn down almost completely. Observation towers loom over the mosques and the Han administration has moved Kashgar’s Muslim population to new suburbs to facilitate control and the suppression of unrest.

Kashgar first came under Chinese rule in 1759 during the western campaigns of General Zhaohui of the Qing Dynasty, which subsequently tried to maintain control of Xinjiang or the “New Territory.” The city then changed hands many times and was a staging point for a number of revolts by the local population. It was ruled by the Turkic Khojas and Kyrgyz bandits until it became capital of the Kingdom of Kashgaria (1864–1878) under the notorious Yakub Beg, and a flashpoint of the Great Game, when Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia vied for control over Central Asia and the access routes to Tibet and India.

Between the two World Wars, East Turkestan along with Kashgar enjoyed semi-autonomy, and in 1933 it became the capital of the Turkish-Islamic Republic of East Turkestan (1933–1942). It was then briefly held by the famous warlord Ma Zhongying, who was eliminated in 1936, probably on Stalin’s orders. In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army marched into Xinjiang, whose mineral resources thereafter became important to the PRC. Because Beijing had to fight both Turkic nationalism and the Soviet influence in the Far West, the Uighurs were promised social emancipation and political autonomy, even though mentally, the Han still looked down on them as barbarians. Only in 1955, when the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was established, was the Uighur presence officially recognized.

The euphemism of the denomination “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” became apparent with the launch of Beijing’s “Great Western Development Strategy,” which was essentially the prologue to the government’s most sweeping internment drive since the Mao era.

Assimilation into the Han majority culture – by weakening Uighur as a separate identity, according to a 2014 document endorsed by President Xi Jinping – has included the elimination of the Uighur-language educational track from Xinjiang’s schools and universities. Sporadic unrest like that in 2009 is still perceived by the government as a sign of insurrection, which it attributes to foreign-inspired Islamic “terrorism,” even though the real causes are not cyber-radicalization, but local and political.

Meanwhile, in Kashgar and other parts of Xinjiang where the authorities have waged a full-scale crackdown on Islam, 2.5 million people – Uighurs as well as Kazakh and Han – are now monitored by an invasive “Muslim tracker” surveillance software that maps their relations with family and friends.

The two reportages were commissioned and published by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich, and became part of Travelling through the Eye of History.