The new Communist Party chief for China's restive western region debuted a softer line on the remote area Tuesday, calling for less discrimination against its largely Muslim population and more initiatives to help win their trust and support.
Zhang Chunxian was made the top Chinese official in Xinjiang less than a year ago, replacing a hard-liner who launched a harsh crackdown after deadly ethnic clashes erupted there in 2009 between predominantly Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese migrants.
Chinese authorities have been accused of alienating the Uighurs, who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from China's majority Han, with tight restrictions on cultural and religious expression and nonviolent dissent. Many Uighurs also resent the presence and relative prosperity of Han migrants who have flooded into Xinjiang since the Communist revolution in 1949.
Uighurs complain that they are passed over for jobs in favor of Han Chinese and face other types of discrimination.
Asked about Uighurs being barred from hotels, Zhang said that he had only heard of a few limited cases like that but that more should be done to combat discrimination.
"I want to tell everyone that although their features may be different, their culture different, their personalities different, they are still the best members of China's mixed ethnic family," Zhang told a crowd of domestic and foreign reporters on the sidelines of China's annual legislative session in Beijing.
Zhang announced no major policy changes, but his comments and relaxed interaction with reporters seemed to suggest an experiment with a less strident rhetorical approach toward Xinjiang. He fielded questions from dozens of rowdy journalists with a cheerful smile, rebuffing the efforts of security officials who tried to usher him out of the room.
Zhang, 57, is unusual among high-level Chinese officials for embracing media attention and keeping a blog.
He said the Communist leadership needs to do more to win the trust and support of Xinjiang's people.
"The key is to win people's hearts and to have people's support," he said. "If all the people in Xinjiang support this regime, and they are confident in themselves, then (the region) can become solid as rock."
Zhang has taken a tougher line in the past, railing against Xinjiang's "separatist sabotage activities" and saying they must be attacked "in all their forms."
On Tuesday, Zhang said the region remains troubled by social instability, unbalanced growth, poor transportation links, and other problems. But he insisted there was no risk that anti-government protests in the Middle East and North Africa would spread to Xinjiang.
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist based in Beijing who has been an outspoken critic of some Chinese government policies in Xinjiang, said that his impression of Zhang has so far been positive.
But, he added, "the fact is the atmosphere in Xinjiang is much the same as it was before, with security concerns trumping other important issues like education, language and culture preservation, unemployment and so on."
Simmering tensions unleashed Xinjiang's worst ethnic violence in over a decade when the unrest broke out in 2009. Uighurs attacked Hans, overturning buses and cars and torching shops in the regional capital of Urumqi in a riot the government says killed 197 people. In the aftermath, hundreds were arrested and about two dozen sentenced to death. Many other Uighurs remain unaccounted for and are believed to be in custody.
Amnesty International said Monday that China has secretly prosecuted several Uighur intellectuals for peacefully expressing views critical of the Chinese government following the 2009 riots, including a history teacher who edited a popular Uighur website and was reportedly sentenced last July to seven years in jail.
Gov. Nur Bekri said he had never heard of the teacher, Tursunjan Hezim, and insisted there were no secret trials in Xinjiang.
"Any person who breaks the laws of the People's Republic of China shall be (prosecuted and) tried in public and their legitimate rights shall be protected," Bekri said at the same news briefing.