China to spend extra $12.87b in restive Xinjiang this year

BEIJING - The Chinese government will pump 61.66 billion yuan (S$12.87 billion) in extra funds into the restive far western region of Xinjiang this year to improve housing and employment, state media said on Wednesday.

Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people and strategically located on the borders of central Asia, has been beset by violence for years, blamed by the government on Islamist militants and separatists who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.

Exiles and many rights groups though say the real cause of the unrest is China's heavy-handed policies including restrictions on Islam and the Uighur people's culture and language, charges the government strongly denies.

But the government has begun to recognise the economic roots of some of the upheaval, especially underdevelopment and lack of job opportunities in heavily Uighur areas like rural southern Xinjiang, and has poured money in to rectify the problem.

State news agency Xinhua said the new funds would be used to build 259,600 houses, generate 450,000 jobs, and improve healthcare for rural and city residents.

A total of 42 projects related to water, electricity, health and the Internet would be carried out in the region's countryside, Xinhua added, without giving details of which particular parts of Xinjiang would get the money.

The funding is part of Xinjiang's fourth "Livelihood-building Year," an initiative started by the regional government in 2010, Xinhua said.

"More than 484 billion yuan has been mobilised in the past four years thanks to the high-profile initiative, which has been credited with helping transform the livelihood of the local population," it reported.

China has stepped up security in Xinjiang after a vehicle ploughed into tourists on the edge of Beijing's Tiananmen Square in October, killing the three people in the car and two bystanders, unnerving the ruling Communist Party.

State media reported last month that President Xi Jinping was shifting the region's focus to maintaining stability over development, after a series of attacks last year fuelled by what the government said was religious extremism.

More than 100 people, including several policemen, have been killed in violence in Xinjiang since last April, according to state media reports.