KASHGAR, China (Reuters) - Uighur merchant Obul Kasim carries emotional scars from his confrontation with an unbending government after he failed to save his 100-year-old mud-brick home from demolition, a victim of the urban renewal marching across the historic Silk Road.
When he refused to leave his Kashgar home in the far western region of Xinjiang in 2004, police handcuffed him and took him to the local station. In 2005 and 2007, he travelled to Beijing to seek redress over what he saw as inadequate compensation, but was rounded up by provincial officials both times.
The issues are jarringly familiar.
Kasim’s grievance is probably the most common complaint across China, but the issue takes on new ramifications in Xinjiang, where demolitions are linked by experts to attempts to eliminate the identity of Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority.
Uighurs make up one of the country’s most discontented minorities, resentful of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the country’s majority Han Chinese.
“Everytime I think about my housing problem, I’m so angry I can’t sit,” said Kasim, his brown eyes flashing. “No department has listened to me. My father was so angry because of this, he passed away of a heart attack.”
Kasim, who sells embroidered skullcaps near Kashgar’s Id Kah mosque, China’s largest, said he would return to Beijing to petition after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, though he does not expect much.
The local government offered him compensation of 470 yuan ($73) per square meter for his 510 square meter (5,500 square foot) home. High-rise apartments are now worth 30,000 yuan per square meter.
“A very large source of discontent is land dispossession,” Tom Cliff, a graduate student at the Australian National University who spent more than three years in Xinjiang, said in emailed comments.
“Many Uighurs see this as their land being taken away from them with inadequate compensation and no recourse to the law.”
Gopuk Haji, a 97-year-old doctor of traditional medicine, said the government gave him a house of 80 square metres, even though his previous mud-brick home was 100 square metres. He dismissed as paltry compensation of 9,600 yuan.
“A real Communist Party must help the people,” he said. “This Communist Party is fake. They are only using money to line their pockets.”
Sporting a long, wispy white beard and flowing white shirt, Haji said China’s former leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were good people. “Now the people are all bad. They are all corrupt. If you don’t have money here, you don’t have power.”
Demolitions proceed at a furious pace across the flat, parched region around Kashgar, designated as “a special economic zone” on the historic Silk Road trade route linking China and Europe.
Heaps of earth and bricks dot residential quarters, while workers lay foundations for drab, modern high-rise apartments. Men in skull caps whack a camel on a dusty street as skyscrapers loom in the distance.
The adobe homes with wooden doors in winding red-dirt lanes were once hailed as the best surviving example of Central Asian architecture.
Ignoring protests from preservationists, the government in 2008 razed most of Kashgar’s old city, destroying 80 per cent of the mud-brick houses to build “earthquake-resistant housing.”
Managing the Uighurs has been one of the Communist Party’s biggest challenges. Tensions erupted into violent clashes between Han Chinese and Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people in the regional capital Urumqi in July 2009.
For Uighurs, Tibetans, and most recently, Inner Mongolians, greater prosperity has not quelled demands for greater autonomy.
“One of the lessons that we can take from Xinjiang is that the pursuit of sheer economic growth as a solution to social problems is not working,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for New-York-based Human Rights Watch.
Bequelin said that the rest of China may hope the government might change its policies, but “in the case of Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, they take to the streets to take a stand.”
Mass demolitions in Kashgar’s old city, he said, were “taken as evidence of the state’s intent to erase and destroy Uighur identity and heritage.”
Like 2009, this year has been jittery in Xinjiang, a region that accounts for a sixth of the country’s land mass, holds deposits of oil and gas and is home to 8 million Uighurs.
Many experts believe the roots of the violence in July’s deadly attacks in Kashgar and the desert city of Hotan stem from a deep belief among Uighurs that they have been left behind as Han Chinese pour into Xinjiang and dominate opportunities.
Dru Gladney, an expert on Uighurs at Pomona College in California, said more unrest in Xinjiang was inevitable.
“Uighurs are clearly upset with the policies there,” he said. “China thinks they can overrun the region with the Han and put in money for security services and that will ameliorate the problem. But it’s not working.”
On the first Friday of Ramadan prayers, soldiers carrying riot shields and rifles marched past the Id Kah mosque, while a paramilitary officer wearing a helmet and bullet-proof vest took videos of men streaming into the mosque with prayer mats.
Banners declared in Chinese: “Unity is a blessing, separatism is a scourge,” and “The Han will never leave the minorities.”
Mutual distrust persists.
“When they look at us, I know they have hatred in their hearts,” said a Han Chinese taxi driver from southwestern Sichuan province.
The government has blamed the violence in Xinjiang on the separatist “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM), designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in 2002.
Beijing says separatists work with al Qaeda or militants among other Turkic ethnic groups in ex-Soviet Central Asia over the border to seek an independent state called East Turkestan.
Uighurs doubt their claims.
“The ETIM doesn’t have a big influence on Uighurs,” said a 40-year-old imam, who declined to be identified. “Most people have heard about this separatist movement, but most of them don’t know who they are or have seen their faces.”
Staring at a poster of two Uighurs shot by police last week on suspicion of involvement in the attacks in Kashgar, Kasim, the Uighur merchant, said: “They are not terrorists. They had their own problems. If they couldn’t solve them, then maybe they had no choice.”
And asked whether Xinjiang should be independent, he said: “I’m afraid to give you an answer. Walls have ears. But if you are smart, you’ll know what my answer is.”
($1 = 6.436 Chinese yuan)
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski