With a population of little over half a million, Kashgar city in China comes across as a “sleepy town”. The roads from the Kashi Airport – modeled after Germany’s Frankfurt Airport’s relatively newer terminal – to the city are not as crowded as elsewhere in China or back home in Pakistan.
Uighurs – ethnic Turkic Muslims – dominate the demographics with over 90 percent of the population. In the main town Kashgar, though, Han Chinese make about 40 percent of the total population. It remains the nerve centre of trade and politics, and used to be a hotbed of Uighur nationalist/separatist militancy stoked by the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
As an outer post in the south of China’s area-wise largest Xinjiang province, Kashgar offers glimpses also of Kazakh and Tajik ethnicities. Xinjiang – with its 22 million inhabitants – is among China’s five autonomous regions and an administrative-political challenge because of its peculiar ethno-political problems.
The Western media, of late, has zoomed in on the province for its handling of the opposition, especially its Muslim population. China has “allegedly” detained an estimated one million Uighur Muslims in “concentration” camps, where they undergo counter-radicalization and re-education programs.
Beijing, in return, rejects the notion of the “concentration” camps and insists these re-education programs are very much in sync with the country’s “one-party, one language and one-nation” ideals.
Officials argue that the entire program of engaging with the dissenters is anchored in the basic principle of inclusion and protection of national interests.
The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who visited Beijing in February – also lent valuable support to the Chinese narrative. During his meeting with President Xi Jinping, the crown prince reportedly agreed that “China had the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-radicalization work for its national security”, according to CCTV News.
Even the recent resolution adopted by the 46th session of OIC Council of Foreign Ministers on March 2 in Abu Dhabi spoke highly of, and fully recognized, the efforts China had made for Chinese Muslims and expressed its willingness to strengthen cooperation with Beijing.
Not long ago, an OIC delegation visited Xinjiang, when they were in China for a political consultation. They argued, after seeing for themselves, how local Muslims lived a happy life with good employment and full freedom of religion. They spoke highly of China’s ethnic and religious policies and recognized China’s efforts for preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalization.
The ETIM – that demands independence from Beijing – stands under continuous sharp gaze of the Communist Party, which has led a stupendous infrastructure development and economic expansion in the restive province in the last decade.
The massive infrastructure, including the state of the art airport, top the access to utilities such as potable water, electricity, road networks, telecommunication, health, and education. All this ties into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Officials say that the province has largely remained peaceful, without a single terror incident since early 2017. Even Kashgar itself seems to be well in control and back to normal, albeit with elaborate security precautions visible all over.
Even the exit and entry to the popular “Old Grand Bazar” is well-guarded by security personnel and scanners.
Kashgar is also a sister city of Shenzhen and Shanghai. Both Chinese provinces are currently helping Xinjiang in the infrastructure and economic development under instructions by the Center. New settlements, roads and business centers are in the making, largely since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the BRI lends Kashgar and Xinjiang as a whole added significance because of the geographical proximity to Pakistan. No surprise that the Center instructed both Shenzhen and Shanghai to support Xinjiang in the infrastructure and economic development and prepare it for the big trade that awaits the region once the Gwadar port becomes fully functional.
The narrow alleys in the Kashgar’s old town – mostly reconstructed for the sake of preservation of the ancient culture – remind the visitor of the life that the native Uyghurs lived here. Strangely, most of the streets and the architecture not only reminisce the old town settlements of Lahore and Peshawar, but also of old Central Asian towns. Some of the old, crumbling mud houses opposite the Grand Bazar stand out as a reminder of the “good old times”.
A lot of immaculate planning seems to have gone into the preservation of these ancient structures that are perched on a hilltop and surrounded by a near natural wall.
The old town is spick and span, thinly populated with many houses locked from the outside. Residences are intermittently placed where young and old gather in front in the afternoons. Besides urban development planning, authorities are now also concerned about the environmental degradation that has come with industrialization, coal-fired plants and tens of millions of cars all over China.
Yet, these concerns never prevented Beijing and its provinces including Xinjiang from development in harmony with the rich cultural heritage.
Vehicles plying on the roads in Kashgar must comply with a 40 km/hour speed limit. Electric scooters – a popular mode of transportation – are part of the efforts to arrest environmental degradation.
Even the traffic management plan up to the Heavenly Lake, some 128 kms outside Urumqi that is the Xinjiang capital city, underlines this effort; almost all private cars must park nearly 25 kms short of the resort. From there onwards, shuttle buses ferry the visitors to the scenic lake surrounded by hills, meanwhile covered by snow.
As a whole, Kashgar, and even Urumqi, represent the cultural diversity that almost all Chinese people celebrate. And this celebration finds its expression in scores of cultural events all over China.
One such event was the first ever Conference on Dialogue among Asian Civilizations in Beijing on May 15, 2019. Over 1000 delegates from 47 countries, including those from several Muslim countries, heard President Xi Jinping’s 27-minute wide-ranging address in which he rejected the Western notion of “Clash of Civilizations” and emphatically rejected prejudice to others. “No civilization is superior over others”, he reminded the audience in an indirect snub to detractors in the West.
President Xi Jinping also made many references to the Islamic contribution towards growth of Asian Civilizations: “Chinese Civilization has been enriched by confluence of Islam & Confucianism”, said the President, as he also referred to the famous “Arabian Nights” fable, the Great Mosque of Makkah, city of Samarkand, also the Indus Civilization.
A beautiful blend of inclusive thoughts, reminding us of a New York Times series on China’s Reform & Opening Up, in November 2018.
In the first article titled “The Land that Failed to Fail”, the newspaper confessed: “The West was sure the Chinese approach would fail & it just had to wait. 40 years later, the West is still waiting.” People across the world often wonder, how come has China achieved this miraculous rise?
The answer to this secret lies most probably in the ancient Chinese saying that President Xi quoted at the Asian Civilizations’ conference:
Treasure your own culture,
Appreciate culture of others,
Coexist in diversity, and
The world will be harmonious
Imtiaz Gul – author, Editor in Chief, Matrix Mag, and Executive Director CRSS – recently visited Kashgar to explore the region.
This article first appeared in Matrix Mag and is being reproduced under a special arrangement. Click here to got to the original