Reporting from Kashgar, China — At the Sunday market in Kashgar, it isn't a wild stretch to imagine commerce as it might have been in the 13th century when Marco Polo passed through this Silk Road oasis: Smooth-faced boys wrangle with horses, sheep and camels. Mounds of melons and grapes are stacked on the bare wooden planks of mule-drawn carts. A wizened man wearing a skullcap sharpens knives on a lathe operated by foot pedals.
But modernity is catching up with a vengeance, as the Chinese government yanks the nation's westernmost city, despite the misgivings of many residents, into the 21st century.
Kashgar is slated to become a special economic zone, and the signs of change are already visible.
Developers from China's east coast are snapping up land in the area, residents say. Concealed behind a row of graceful poplar trees along the main road to the airport, newly erected green wire fences delineate plots of land slated for development: a factory that makes instant ramen noodles for export to Pakistan and Tajikistan, a warehouse for wheat also headed for central Asia.
Tents for construction workers are pitched near empty lots behind the Kashgar Central and Southern Asia Industrial Park, which according to the state press, is being expanded from two square miles to 60. Even on a Sunday afternoon, crews were leveling an access road.
"This land used to be desert. Nobody was interested in it," said a 35-year-old local businessman. "Now rich people from the east are coming and buying everything they can.... They buy the land. They put in roads. Then they put a wall around it."
Chinese officials hope the economic zone status will do for Kashgar what it did for Shenzhen, the South China Sea fishing village that 30 years ago launched China's transformation into a manufacturing superpower. Whereas Shenzhen's wares head by sea to Korea, Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States, Kashgar is viewed increasingly as the launch pad into Pakistan and India, as well as some of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"We want to restore Kashgar to the position it had in the days of the Silk Road," said Wang Ning, an economist with the government-run Academy of Social Sciences in Xinjiang, the far-western region where Kashgar lies.
"The plan is that by 2020 we should close the gap between east and west and allow the west to share in the prosperity of the east," said Wang, who is based in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.
But Kashgar residents are suspicious of such claims, knowing that economic development in China often involves policies that allow outsiders to grab most new wealth. Until a decade ago, 90% of Kashgar's 355,000 permanent residents were Uighurs, a Turkic people whose language, appearance and Islamic faith more closely link them to Central Asia than to Beijing. New census data won't be available until next year, but activists suspect that the Uighur population has dropped to 70% with the migration of of about 150,000 Han Chinese to Kashgar.
Ignoring protests from preservationists abroad, the Chinese government last year bulldozed most of Kashgar's historic old city, destroying 85% of the labyrinthine alleys of mud-brick houses in the name of earthquake safety. The ochre-colored alleys and archways were so evocative of Old Kabul that the old city was used as the setting in 2007 for the filming of "The Kite Runner." Only a small section is left today for tourists. About 200,000 people, almost all Uighurs, are being relocated to bland, modern apartment buildings in the suburbs.
"It is all part of a wholesale attack on the Uighur identity," said Nury Turkel, a Kashgar-born lawyer and activist who lives in Washington, D.C. He believes the economic zone will be more of the same, with the best opportunities accruing to Han Chinese outsiders. "The Uighurs can't even get loans from banks. How are they going to open businesses?"
Although the Uighurs, by dint of their location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, were traditionally traders, they have been squeezed out by tough Chinese policies that have made it difficult to obtain passports.
"If you go to Bishkek, you'll see maybe 50 Uighurs, but thousands of Chinese. They're making easy money," said the 35-year-old businessman, who like most Uighurs in Kashgar would not permit his name to be used because of the perils of criticizing the Chinese government. The economic zone, he said, may "help some of our young people get jobs in factories at low salaries, but the big money is not for us."
Other than Tibet, no region in China is more ethnically fraught than Xinjiang (Chinese for "new territory"). Sporadic bombings and attacks have included an incident two years ago in Kashgar in which two men rammed a dump truck into a crowd of police officers out on a jog.