Improved livelihoods a stabilising factor

At the height of violence in China's western Xinjiang region as recently as 2014, Mr Alamjan, an ethnic Uighur working as a hotel chef in Ining city, felt his colleagues from other ethnic groups were wary of him.

But as unrest subsided over the past two years, the 41-year-old, who would give only his first name, told The Sunday Times that working relations have improved. His own level of happiness has also risen as his salary doubled from 2,400 yuan (S$485) to 4,700 yuan in the past five years.

"The government has pumped in lots of money to help develop Xinjiang - building flats, and helping the poor," he said. He noted that the city in northern Xinjiang has become more prosperous and vibrant - there are a lot more shops and malls, and people have better jobs.

The Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang has been plagued by terror attacks in recent years. In 2014, more than 100 people lost their lives in multiple deadly attacks carried out by separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang's capital city of Urumqi and other counties.

Mr Alamjan's sentiments are echoed by several Xinjiang residents, who said improved livelihoods could have helped lower social discontentment among the Uighurs and thus the frequency of violence.

"Xinjiang is very safe. Don't keep thinking that this is a bad place," said Ms Li Hua, 40, an ethnic Hui herdswoman who lives near the Sayram lake in Bole city, in northern Xinjiang.

She noted that with increased stability, there have been more tourists and investment flowing into the region. "The shop that I operate in the hot spring area has seen businesses pick up in the past two years," said Ms Li, who also runs a sundry shop that sells food and snacks to augment her income from selling lambs.

But fears remain among some in the south, such as in Hotan city, where most violent incidents such as attacks on policemen and police stations took place. The southern areas are less developed and poorer, and are also dominated more by Uighurs than Han Chinese.

According to the 2000 population census, 80 per cent of the Uighurs in Xinjiang live in the south, while the same proportion of Han Chinese congregate in the north.

A Uighur mother of two toddlers from Ining city, who did not want to be named, said she would not dare to travel to the south as "it's not safe".

Professor Yang Shu, a terrorism expert at Lanzhou University, said the stability in recent years could be partially attributed to improved livelihoods. He also believes that the tough measures taken by the authorities to clamp down on terrorism have produced results.

"Now, whenever there's an incident, the police are required to arrive at the scene within two minutes. This goes to show how much resources have been pumped in to ensure the society remains stable," he said.

Chong Koh Ping

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Improved livelihoods a stabilising factor'. Print Edition | Subscribe