BEIJING (Reuters) - China's western Xinjiang region will expand bilingual preschool education, state media said on Friday, a measure that comes amid a broader campaign the government says will promote unity in the region, which has struggled with ethnic violence.
Hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past few years. The government blames the violence on Islamist militants who it says want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan for minority Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people who speak a Turkic language.
Xinjiang officials have said bilingual education needs improvement, referring to a policy that has proved controversial in the region as many Uighurs fear their mother tongue is being pushed aside in favor of Mandarin.
The government says it will improve Uighurs' job prospects.
Xinjiang will use central government funds to offer three years of bilingual preschool education instead of the current two years in the region's rural areas between 2016 and 2020, the official Xinhua news agency said.
"Xinjiang is aiming to ensure 85 percent of pre-school children across the region have access to such education in 2020," Xinhua said. The news agency said the figure was 75 percent last year.
The central government has invested more than 1 billion yuan ($154 million) this year to build 552 bilingual kindergartens in Xinjiang, mainly in the region's rural south, Xinhua said.
Rights groups and exiles say one of the major problems in Xinjiang is government controls on Uighur culture and Islam, and point out that few Han Chinese who live and work in Xinjiang make any effort to learn Uighur or make Uighur friends.
China denies having any repressive policies.
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.
Reporting by Michael Martina