China launches unity push in restive Xinjiang with respect call

Kazakh herdsmen move sheep in Yili, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China.
Kazakh herdsmen move sheep in Yili, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's violence-prone far western region of Xinjiang has begun a campaign to promote ethnic unity with a call for respect of the cultures of the minorities who call the region home, while vowing another crackdown on terrorism and separatism.

Hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past few years. The government blames the violence on Islamist militants who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan for minority Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people who speak a Turkic language and hail from Xinjiang.

Rights groups and exiles say one of the major problems in Xinjiang is government controls on Uighur culture and Islam, and point out that few Han Chinese who live and work in Xinjiang make any effort to learn Uighur or make Uighur friends.

Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang's Communist Party boss, launched "the year of ethnic unity progress" at a meeting in the region's capital, Urumqi.

"We must respect differences, and take a respectful attitude towards dealing with problems of (different) customs, to create an atmosphere in society of respect for the culture and customs of different peoples," Zhang said, in comments carried in Thursday's official Xinjiang Daily.

This can start from the smallest things in daily life, and people should be "guided" to live, work and study together so they can learn respect and tolerance, added Zhang, who is a member of the Han majority.

While saying there was progress in combating extremism and getting the various ethnic groups to get along with each other, he admitted that there had been a rise in ethnic disputes and terrorism remained a problem in some parts of Xinjiang.

Companies that operate in Xinjiang need to be pushed into employing more minorities, and their culture and languages need encouragement and protection, Zhang said.

Bilingual education also needs improving, he added, referring to a policy that has long proved controversial in Xinjiang as many Uighurs fear their mother tongue is being pushed aside in favour of Mandarin.

Han Chinese are generally not taught Uighur or about Islam at school in Xinjiang.

Zhang, who has repeatedly called for the different peoples in Xinjiang to get along better with each other, vowed a"resolute crackdown" on terrorism and separatism, though said people involved in this were a small minority.

Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam but many have begun adopting practices more common in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, such as full-face veils for women, as China has stepped up a security crackdown in recent years.