BEIJING (Reuters) - China's violence-prone western region of Xinjiang needs to make more efforts at development in its ethnic Uighur heartland to ensure young people there have "something to do and money to earn", Premier Li Keqiang told its top officials.
The government says it faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists in energy-rich Xinjiang, which sits strategically on the borders of Central Asia and where hundreds have died in violence in recent years.
However, exiles and rights groups say China has never presented convincing evidence of the existence of a cohesive militant group fighting the government, and much of the unrest can be traced back to frustration at controls over the culture and religion of the Muslim Uighur people who live in Xinjiang.
Speaking to Xinjiang delegates to China's annual meeting of parliament, including the region's Communist Party chief and governor, Li said Xinjiang occupied an "especially important strategic position", the official Xinjiang Daily said on Friday.
"Xinjiang's development and stability ... have bearing on national and ethnic unity and national security," Li said, adding he thought Xinjiang was "generally stable" at present.
Turning to the topic of the heavily Uighur southern part of Xinjiang, where much of the unrest has occurred in recent years, Li said companies which "suit actual local conditions and are good for the environment" needed to be "guided" to set up there.
"Let the people, especially the young, have something to do and money to earn," he said.
Recognizing the economic roots of some of the violence and frustration of many young Uighurs at missing out on China's economic boom, Beijing has increased its focus on southern Xinjiang, pumping in money and encouraging development.
China's fourth-ranked leader, Yu Zhengsheng, called southern Xinjiang the "main battle ground in the anti-separatist struggle" during a visit last September.
Li said education was also an important part of development and stability.
"You must pay attention to education work, especially in southern Xinjiang, send educators to southern Xinjiang, nurture well the next generation."
He did not elaborate, but China has been enforcing in Xinjiang more teaching in Mandarin, the national tongue, rather than the Uighur's own Turkic language, hoping to better integrate Uighurs into the Chinese society.
Some Uighurs have seen that as another way for China to repress their culture.
China strongly denies any repression or human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)