Now, the authorities are fearing that the conflict could spread from Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi to Muslim-dominated Kashgar. The 2000-year old city, which is the cultural capital of the Uighurs was once a major centre on the silk road but the Government has decided that much of the old town is too unsafe and must be demolished.
Presenter: Stephen McDonell, ABC Australia Network's China correspondent
Xu Jianrong; Deputy Mayor of Kashgar; 90-year-old Uighur man
(Sound of chanting)
STEPHEN MCDONELL: I'm sitting on the roof of a grass-mud house, looking out over what remains of old Kashgar. On one side of the road below, traditional buildings have already been destroyed and construction teams are working on the flash new structures that will replace them.
On the other side of the road are the minarets, poplar trees and ramshackle mud brick communities of the old city. Some of the buildings in this old neighbourhood are over 500 years old.
The demolition in this the cultural capital of the Uyghurs is causing great distress here. The Government says that most of the old buildings are unsafe and, if there was ever an earthquake in Kashgar like that in Sichuan last year, the death toll would be huge amongst the 50,000 people living in the old city.
Deputy Mayor Xu Jianrong says that some houses can be renovated, some will be destroyed and, in areas, the city will be rebuilt in a traditional style.
XU JIANRONG (translated): If you're asking me for a percentage, how many will be restored, our current plans are area by area and we haven't completed them. But if the local people are happy, we'll take it to the next step. We'll accomplish this task together.
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Yet even if the Government is acting out of good will, most of the local Uyghurs don't trust their motives. One 90-year-old man wasn't afraid to speak out. We asked him what he thought of the claim by officials that they'll rebuild many parts of the old town using traditional Uighur designs.
MAN (translated): It's a total lie. They never tell the truth. There's not one official who speaks truthfully in Kashgar. All of them have lied and sent people to jail. They beat people, they wrong people, they receive money from the rich and that's who they promote.
STEPHEN MCDONELL: I've just walked into a cluster of little blacksmith shops over 400 years old. This is the last full day of work here. The whole block will be levelled by the end of the week.
The blacksmiths here have a verbal agreement from the Government that the area will be rebuilt and that they can come back in the future. But they don't know whether to believe what they've been told.
The arguments for and against the demolition are complex. According to some Uyghurs, the Chinese Government sees Kashgar as a hotbed of separatism so it's moving people out of the rabbit warren of the old city and into flats, because it's easier to control them there. The Deputy Mayor says this is utter nonsense.
XU JIANRONG (translated): We only want people to live in earthquake-resistant, safe, comfortable houses to improve their living conditions and surroundings.
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Following the clashes in Urumqi which killed nearly 200 people and injured 1,600, foreign journalists have been rushing to Kashgar to see if this city with a majority Uyghur population would also explode into violent conflict. The Government is now escorting journalists to the airport and telling them to leave.