Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have announced a slew of cash incentives for interracial marriages between members of ethnic minority groups and majority Han Chinese, local officials said.
The move immediately drew criticism from overseas exile Uyghur groups, who called it an extension of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's policy of assimilation of the region's mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur group.
Officials in Xinjiang's Bayinguoleng Autonomous Mongolian Prefecture are offering annual cash payouts to couples in which one party is Han Chinese and the other a member of a minority ethnic group.
According to the new rules, which came into effect on Aug. 21, mixed-race couples will also enjoy privileged access to housing, medical care, and education for their children, officials said.
But the benefits won't apply if both parties are from a minority group, according to an official who answered the phone at the prefecture's Cherchen (in Chinese, Qiemo) county government offices on Friday.
"[One party] must be Han Chinese," the official said. "It can be Han Chinese with Mongolian, or Han with Uyghur."
"After they marry, they will receive an annual payout of 10,000 yuan (U.S.$1,630) for five years," he said.
He said the incentives only apply to those who marry after Aug. 21, however.
He said the government had recently compiled statistics on interracial marriages in the county.
"Right now our statistics show that there are around 57 households," he said. "These statistics haven't been published yet."
The official said the new incentives are a tentative scheme aimed at boosting the number of interracial marriages.
"These are experimental rules, and they are only temporary," he said. "If they don't turn out to be appropriate, they could could be [changed or dropped]."
"It's not set in stone."
Separately, a Uyghur official in Cherchen county's ethnic and religious affairs office confirmed the move, saying, "I have heard that this policy is in place in other places in the autonomous region, and that there is a secret policy to support it."
"I went to a Chinese school and speak the language, but I wouldn't want my child to marry a Han Chinese," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We are Muslim, but because we work in a government office we can't say anything about this."
The Xinjiang regulations come in the same month as allegations that the Chinese government is trying to stamp out Tibetan culture and religion by promoting interracial marriage with positive stories in official media and similarly favorable policies.
According to Dilxat Raxit, Munich-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, Beijing has recently stepped up its attempt to soothe ethnic tension by using social engineering.
"They are using cash incentives in a bid to encourage Uyghurs and Han Chinese to intermarry, as a way of speeding up the assimilation [of Uyghurs]," Raxit told RFA on Friday, adding, "They are using marriage as a means to achieve Beijing's political ends."
Cross-cultural marriages between Uyghurs and Han Chinese are extremely rare, though, he said.
"The Turkic culture of the Uyghurs and Han culture is different in almost every way, and Uyghurs basically don't marry Han Chinese," Raxit said.
"There are individual exceptions, but even they end in divorce."
A Han Chinese resident of Xinjiang surnamed Liu agreed, though offering a different reason.
"Such marriages are very rare because Chinese people don't want to marry Uyghurs," she said.
But she added that "personal feelings" are far more likely to have an impact on boosting mixed marriages than any government incentive.
"It should be about people's personal feelings, their love," Liu said. "But if they don't understand each other's language, it's not going to happen for either party."
'Not the answer'
A Han Chinese resident of the regional capital Urumqi surnamed Zhou said the government appears to believe that more mixed marriages will soothe tensions in the region, where many Uyghurs complain of excessive religious controls, economic discrimination, and abusive law enforcement under Chinese rule.
"[I guess] they want an end to long-term strife and opposition, and to the rift that's already grown between the two groups," Zhou said.
"Because if they don't solve the ethnic question, that's going to mean far more headaches for the government."
But he said the politicization of marriage choices isn't the answer. "It's too prescriptive to offer rewards for marrying, which should be a free choice."
Uyghurs may in any case object to marriages with Han Chinese because of China's "harsh religious and ethnic repression" of the minority group, Alimjan Bughra, a scholar of religious studies based in Turkey, said.
"And with China again increasing its pressure on Uyghurs in recent years, it may prove impossible for Uyghurs to accept interracial marriage," Bughra said.
Upsurge in violence
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year antiterrorist campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
In the latest serious violence, Chinese state media said, 96 people were killed in July 28 riots which erupted after a "gang" of Uyghurs attacked a police station and government offices in Kashgar prefecture's Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county.
The authorities had reacted with "a resolute crackdown to eradicate terrorists," state media said.
But exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer accused the authorities of covering up a massacre of up to 2,000 Uyghur civilians.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Eset Sulaiman for the Uyghur Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.