Showdown at the crossroads of the world

The city of Kashgar is a melting pot of nationalities where East and West meet. But its rich heritage is being crushed by Beijing's brutal attempt to impose Chinese culture on an unruly imperial outpost.

Dust billows on to the medieval streets of Kashgar, clouding the view of the cutlers and wood-carvers across the road, as the last wall of an ancient house in this city on the Silk Road is destroyed. Even before the dust has settled, workers wearing Chinese People's Liberation Army uniforms start pulling down the blue hoarding around the site.

The Chinese government believes this ancient latticework of narrow streets, with its courtyard homes, mosques and open-fronted shops, is dangerous. Beijing believes the city is in need of modernisation if it is to take part in China's economic miracle.

But fears about earthquakes and the compulsion to modernise are only part of the story. The Chinese are trying to contain what they say is a separatist movement in the Xinjiang region, and this week claimed to have unmasked eight terror cells.

Kashgar has not experienced the sort of dramatic demographic changes seen elsewhere in Xinjiang: in Urumqi, for example, the capital, two hours by plane from Kashgar, the Uighur population has plummeted from 60 to 30 per cent of the total. In Kashgar, by contrast, the Han population is largely confined to police and other officials. But knocking down the ancient fabric of the city and replacing it with bland concrete blocks and towers is part of the same sinicisation process that has been applied in Tibet: another way Beijing strives to bind up the nation's fraying fringes.

Nothing is simple in Kashgar, the original capital of globalisation and a real melting pot. Kashgar's street signs are written in Arabic lettering as well as Chinese and people on the streets are a mixture of Uighur and Han, with a fair smattering of Kazakhs, Pakistanis, Russians and Uzbeks. The city's bazaars and mosques, Uighur language and clothes, Caucasian features and the Turkish food mark China's westernmost city out as Central, not East, Asia. Here you are closer to the Mediterranean than to Beijing.

Many local Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group who share linguistic and cultural bonds with central Asia and who make up the majority of the population in the province of Xinjiang, fear their culture is being crushed to rubble along with the ancient masonry of Kashgar.

They are unhappy with the growing economic and political power of ethnic Han Chinese and reject what they see as cultural imperialism from Beijing, much as Tibetans feel about what is happening there.

Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and Qianlong all came to Kashgar, where the north and south Silk Roads meet, some of them sacking the city in the process. But none have made such an impact on the historic city of 400,000 as the developers with orders from Beijing to tear down the Muslim enclave and rebuild a modern symbol of Chinese influence in the restive Xinjiang province.

"This town was home to my parents, my grandparents and my grandparents' parents," said one shopkeeper as he packed up his wares for the day. Over half of Kashgar's residents live in the Old City. The multimillion-pound relocation plan has already begun and hundreds of families have been relocated to modern apartments in the new section of town. Large swaths of the Old City are already reduced to rubble.

"We've been told our shop will be knocked down either this month or next month. It's a disaster, though we will get compensation," said another, looking left and right. Like everyone else in Kashgar, he is afraid to talk about what is happening as the streets are full of police officers.

Kashgar is famous as a town full of spies, and you have the feeling of being constantly under surveillance in the city, just as travellers from Britain were during the Great Game, a period of strategic manoeuvring in the early 20th century when Britain tried to counter Russia's influence in the region and protect India.

Silk was the key to Kashgar's strategic position in the old days. Criss-crossed by camel caravans to and from Central Asia and Europe, the Silk Road has long been China's link with Europe and has always been a crossroads for people and cultures.

The Han Chinese came in the first century BC along the Silk Road and conquered the region in the first century after Christ, but were constantly harassed by Mongols and Turks. After a period as a Buddhist centre, the Tang dynasty reimposed imperial control by the 8th century, but the Mongols came back in the 11th and 12th centuries and Islam came to dominate. The Manchus took control in 1755, but current rule by China is generally dated back to 1870, when Qing dynasty generals crushed a Muslim rebellion led by Yakub Beg, a British agent, who proclaimed an independent Turkestan in 1865.

Kashgar was where the great British travel writer Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond creator Ian, pitched up after months of travel in the 1930s, and joyfully passed under the image of the Lion and the Unicorn fighting for the Crown above the British consulate.

In News From Tartary, Fleming tells stories of listening to the gramophone, sleeping in a bed after months of hard travel, drinking beer and paying official calls to the British vice-consulate. And of spies.

"You felt ... that you were at the end of the dead desert, which had swallowed – but showed no signs of having digested – the outposts of more than one civilisation; you felt the nearness of another power, of other races, beyond the dust-haze and the mountains," he writes.

Until the new Chinese onslaught, and even now in the surviving ancient lanes, the old flavours that Fleming enjoyed remain unchanged. The streets are full of life. One row of shops is a boulevard of dentists, each with modern dentist's chairs sitting inside their ancient shops. Another street is home to knife-makers.

Further along the street is a large sign showing the plan for the Old City, an orderly development of apartments and shops, with minaret-style structures at each corner. Efficient, modern and utterly charmless.

China is expert at moving large numbers of people – in recent years, millions have been relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze river and much of old Beijing was destroyed to make way for new buildings before the Olympics last year. However, many Uighurs are worried about what they are going to do once their shops are gone. Compensation is fine, but the loss of livelihood is difficult to replace.

The government's line is that the Old City is too far away from adequate water for putting out fires, and that the structures are unsound given the numerous earthquakes that regularly strike the region – although the fact that so many of the Old City's buildings are still standing is testament to their ability to withstand most of what nature can throw their way.

Chinese rule has improved the local economy, but Uighurs fear for the damage to their culture. Bilingual education is widely approved, as Mandarin is seen as the language of the future, but parents are perturbed that Uighur is slipping off the curriculum.

The largest province in China, Xinjiang accounts for 16 per cent of its land area and for hundreds of years the province has been a difficult territory to rule, something the Communist Party is as keenly aware of as the Turkish warriors and Manchu warlords who tried in previous centuries.

The destruction of the Old City has its critics. Wu Dianting, professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal University's School of Geography, does not believe it is necessary to demolish the Old City, as it contains some good quality houses.

"The government could arrange for some Uighurs who live in dangerous houses to settle down in a new zone. Then they could reinforce and repair some houses. Some of the quality of the buildings is not good. Some houses are too close together, which is not convenient for first aid and fire fighting. The Old City needs protection as a whole," said Professor Wu. "The Old City could develop tourism. Kashgar's Old City contains the typical Uighur way of life, production and culture, it should not be demolished completely."

He Shuzhong, founder and chairman of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, said while protecting the local population against the dangers of earthquakes is important, large-scale demolition is unnecessary.

"The government could repair those dangerous houses," he said. "But the rebuilding must use the original materials and techniques. The reinforcement must be faithful to its original shape. The local Uighurs are the spirit of the Old City. If people move out, the city would lose its soul."

China's wild west: History of defiance

*The Uighurs of Xinjiang, most of whom practise Sufi Islam, have long bridled against Chinese rule. The Chinese government says their separatist movement was responsible for 200 attacks and 162 deaths between 1990 and 2001.

*After the terror attacks on the US in 2001, China re-branded the separatists as "terrorists". In April two Uighur men were executed in Kashgar for an attack in the city which killed 17 policemen and which the government said was aimed at disrupting the Beijing Olympics. But analysts say that Uighur insurgent activities have generally decreased in recent years and the separatists pose no immediate threat to the Chinese government.

*Eighteen Uighur would-be migrants ended up in the US prison in Guantanamo Bay after a series of bizarre misadventures. One of them was chained to the floor of his windowless cell, according to his lawyer. All were finally released in 2006.

*The leader of the Uighurs in exile, Rebiya Kadeer, who is based in Washington, said that China's claims that it had smashed Uighur "terror cells" lacked "the slightest piece of evidence." He went on: "These allegations are being made in such a way as to associate peaceful Uighurs with the scourge of terrorism."