China official calls for reduced birth rates in Xinjiang

BEIJING (REUTERS) - An official from China's restive far-western Xinjiang called for strict measures to prevent early marriages and high birth rates in southern parts of the region, state media said on Friday, a move likely to raise concerns among ethnic Uighurs.

Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has struggled with violence in recent years between majority Han Chinese and mostly Muslim Uighurs.

The government says Islamist separatists want their own state called East Turkestan, but human rights advocates argue that economic marginalisation of Uighurs and curbs on their culture and religion are main causes of the unrest.

Rural areas in southern Xinjiang have "worryingly high birth rates" and "local couples" often choose religious marriage instead of registering with authorities, said Hou Hanmin, a member of the Xinjiang committee to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a parliamentary advisory body.

"This negatively affects not only the physical and mental health of children and women, but also the population quality in the region, posing risks to social stability," the ruling Communist Party's Global Times tabloid cited Ms Hou as saying at a Wednesday meeting.

Ms Hou said that refusal to follow marriage laws made it hard for women to defend against domestic violence.

The Global Times did not say what measures Ms Hou advocated, but her comments are the latest in a series from officials hinting at policies that could heighten ethnic tensions.

In August, the region's Communist Party boss, Zhang Chunxian, wrote in an official party magazine that all ethnic groups in Xinjiang should be held to the same family planning policies in an effort to lower birth rates. Xinjiang officials have also offered cash to encourage inter-ethnic marriages.

Critics see such policies as an attempt to reduce the proportion of minorities in Xinjiang or increase cultural assimilation. Uighurs already chafe at what they see as an influx of Han Chinese in the region.

Minorities currently face more lenient rules under China's one-child policy, exceptions to which allow most rural and urban Uighur families to have three children and two children, respectively.

A separate report in the English-language China Daily said the military would boost its presence in Xinjiang to secure its borders, as the United States reduces its military footprint in Afghanistan. "We have the responsibility to stay on high alert and strike hard against terrorist activities in the region," Peng Yong, Commander of the People's Liberation Army Xinjiang military region, said.