BEIJING (Reuters) - China will push the study of Mandarin and the "blending" of different races as part of a new stability push in the troubled far western region of Xinjiang, the region's top Communist Party official said in remarks published on Wednesday.
Hundreds of people have been killed in violence in Xinjiang in the past few years. The government blames the unrest on Islamist militants who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan for minority Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people who speak a Turkic language and hail from Xinjiang.
Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang's party boss, said during a meeting in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, deep in the Uighur heartland in southern Xinjiang, that Xinjiang was a chess board and its southern reaches were a crucial piece.
"South Xinjiang is the central battleground for fighting terrorism and threats to stability," Zhang said, in comments carried by the official Xinjiang Daily.
In southern Xinjiang, China aims to achieve significant progress by 2020 in the struggle against separatists, maintaining stability and fighting terror, Zhang said.
He said the government has made notable progress in protecting social stability and "religious harmony".
Many Uighurs chafe at pressure to take on Chinese customs and language, which has often been coupled with curbs on their own religious and cultural practices. China denies having any repressive policies.
Efforts would be strengthened on "exchanges and blending" between ethnic groups and education in "the language commonly used in our country", Zhang said, in a reference to Mandarin Chinese.
China has long pushed Mandarin as a unifying tongue in a country with hundreds of different dialects and languages, but has faced considerable resistance in Xinjiang where it is viewed as another effort to dilute Uighur culture.
Few Han Chinese in Xinjiang learn the Uighur language or study about Islam.
Zhang said authorities would also push education on ethnic unity with young people, a term that generally means promoting harmony among China's different races.
Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of Islam but many have begun adopting practices more common in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, such as full-face veils for women, as China has stepped up a security crackdown in recent years.
Exiles and many rights groups say the real cause of the unrest is heavy-handed Chinese policies, including curbs on Uighur culture, and a dearth of economic opportunity.
Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Edmund Klamann