China says lessons to learn in Xinjiang from Mideast unrest

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 4:39 PM
China says lessons to learn in Xinjiang from Mideast unrest

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) -China must apply the lessons of the Middle East unrest to its mostly Muslim, far western Xinjiang, its top official said on Tuesday, adding that he was confident the region would remain stable.

Zhang Chunxian, appointed Xinjiang's Communist Party chief last year, said stability depended on ensuring everyone benefited from the country's stellar economic growth, a key government strategy to co-opting its people.

"I have total confidence at the moment in Xinjiang's stability. I have no worries at all. But I must learn the lessons, on a technical level, from the Middle East," Zhang told reporters on the sidelines of China's annual meeting of parliament.

He did not say what those lessons were.

Defending one-party control has been a priority since the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, and China has come down hard to prevent any hint of Middle East-style protests at home.

Amnesty International said this week China was continuing its crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, targeting via secret trials those who had taken to the internet to speak out against government policies or write about peaceful political activities.

Police have rounded up dozens of dissidents across China since online messages from abroad urged pro-democracy gatherings inspired by the "Jasmine Revolutions" in the Middle East, as well as flooded sites of would-be demonstrations with heavy security.

Xinjiang is already tightly controlled and heavily policed due to simmering discontent among the Muslim Uighur people who call the region home. Many chafe at Beijing's rule.

The regional capital, Urumqi, was rocked by ethnic violence in 2009 which killed nearly 200. Beijing has subsequently turned its attention to boosting development there and providing greater job opportunities.

"If we want long-lasting stability, we must ensure the people can really enjoy and benefit from the fruits of reform and opening up," Zhang said of the country's reforms begun three decades ago, which have propelled China to become the world's second-largest economy.

Zhang replaced the long-serving Wang Lequan. Wang was the target of public anger for his handling of the Urumqi riots.

Zhang also suggested that Xinjiang's 21.6 million people -- almost two-thirds of whom are minorities -- needed to become more a part of mainstream Chinese society.

"This region must be a scientific one; the people must be modern citizens," Zhang said.

Rights group say Chinese policies to control religion and undermine teaching in minority languages, among others, are some of the main reasons for instability in Xinjiang.

"These secret trials are creating an atmosphere of terror for Uighur intellectuals and writers living in China," said Catherine Baber, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific deputy director, referring to the jailing of Uighur webmasters and writers.

Xinjiang is strategically vital to China. A vast swathe of territory, it holds rich oil and gas deposits and borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia.

(Editing by Lucy Hornby and Nick Macfie)