KUQA, China — In this ancient oasis town in China's restive west, assault rifle-toting police officers patrol the cobblestone lanes of ochre-brick houses in an ethnic Uighur neighborhood. Three police surveillance cameras atop a white pole watch over a narrow dirt road frequented mostly by cows. Wanted posters for suspected Uighur assailants are stuck on walls every few hundred feet.
China has blanketed parts of Xinjiang, home to Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, with such heavy security that it resembles an occupied territory under martial law, complete with armed troops, spiked barricades, checkpoints and even drones. But the massive security effort has not brought stability to Xinjiang, and neither has Beijing's strategy of pouring in economic investment. A few hundred people have died in ethnic violence in Xinjiang and in two attacks in Chinese cities elsewhere over the past 16 months.
The Chinese leadership's latest attempt at a solution is an initiative to foster ethnic mingling between Uighurs and the country's Han Chinese majority. Communist Party leader Xi Jinping introduced the high-stakes campaign to integrate — or some say assimilate — Uighurs with Chinese-language schooling, more jobs and greater mobility in May. At least one county is even promoting intermarriage between the groups by dangling financial rewards.
"All ethnic groups must understand one another, have mutual tolerance, appreciation, learn from one another, help one another and embrace one another like seeds of a pomegranate," Xi said at a high-level meeting.
China is trying to bring Uighurs into the fold by encouraging them to leave their hometowns and mix with Han communities, while pledging to share the rewards Beijing has reaped from the riches of Xinjiang's oil and gas deposits with more jobs and better infrastructure.
The strategy may include a reassessment of some of the policies that had favored ethnic minorities — such as limited exemptions to China's rules on how many children couples can have — in a bid to reduce distinctions between the ethnicities. However, removing such exemptions will stoke controversy.
"The administration of Xi Jinping wants to make a bold and yet risky attempt to increase inter-ethnic mingling," said James Leibold of Australia's La Trobe University, who has studied Chinese ethnic policy for over a decade. "It's boldness in the sense that it would signal a major change in current ethnic policies and risky in the sense that it could potentially exacerbate tensions between the Uighurs and the Han majority."
Many Uighurs bristle under Beijing's heavy-handed restrictions on their religious life and resent the influx of Hans into their homeland, while Hans often say Uighurs are ungrateful for the government's support.
In Kuqa and the nearby city of Aksu, the two groups live in separate districts with de facto segregation. The Han districts look like Chinese urban neighborhoods parachuted into the desert, with few signs of adopting local architectural or cultural styles. The two groups speak little or none of the other's language.
"Just don't go out at night if you're in a Uighur neighborhood," said a middle-aged Han woman getting a bicycle tire fixed in the only Chinese repair shop on a mostly Uighur street in Aksu. "It's not safe."
Aksu's Chinese schools are ringed with tall fences topped with razor wire. Shoppers enter a pedestrian mall by weaving their way through two rows of spiked barricades. Troops with armored personnel carriers guard busy intersections frequented by Han.
In the county of Shache in Kashgar prefecture, police searched the area with drones in recent weeks after the region saw its bloodiest unrest in five years, with nearly 100 people killed, more than half of them shot by police.
"Uighurs feel like they are living in an open-air prison," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress. They have "no dignity, no equality, and are at any time subject to discriminatory inspections and illegal detention."
It doesn't help that the voices of Uighurs in China are rarely heard, especially after the arrest of a well-known, moderate Uighur rights advocate in China, economist Ilham Tohti, who was charged with separatism.
Xinjiang police also bar attempts at independent reporting in the region. A team of three Associated Press reporters on a recent trip were intercepted by police as soon as they landed at Kuqa's airport, and then tailed around the clock — even in restaurants, hotels and bathrooms.
As the reporters were leaving a restaurant in Aksu, a Uighur employee held up two fingers and pantomimed a scissors gesture, as if cutting off his tongue.
Some scholars fear the government's high-pressure tactics are feeding insurgent sentiment that might one day explode.
"It's not about an outburst taking place right now but the energy that is accumulating for an explosion in the future," said Wang Lixiong, a Chinese scholar and minority rights activist who sees tensions in Xinjiang as rapidly descending into "Palestinization," in which there is mutual ethnic hatred between groups.
"If one day the authoritarian regime falls apart, the explosion of ethnic conflict could potentially be very violent and brutal," Wang said. "That is the greatest worry."
Beijing's latest attempts at weaving Uighurs into the fabric of Chinese society seem aimed at easing that worry — though whether they will work or further inflame tensions is debatable.
China plans to increase Mandarin-language instruction in schools instead of the native Uighur and allow more Uighurs to move out of southern Xinjiang and into Han-dominated cities in the Chinese heartland. The southern Xinjiang county of Qiemo, meanwhile, is promoting intermarriage between Hans and Uighurs by offering financial incentives to newlyweds, as well as subsidized health care and free schooling for their offspring.
But such policies might be problematic.
"You might say it is ethnic integration, but others might call it ethnic assimilation," Wang said. "By sending Uighurs to the interior for school, is it just meant for them to learn to take on Han ways of thinking?"
Part of the overall effort is the building of a university in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, the cradle of Uighur civilization. But Gardner Bovingdon, a Xinjiang expert at Indiana University, said the school only serves to project Chinese cultural influence into the fabled center of historical Uighur culture, with the government's top-down approach failing to address Uighur demands.
"Pick your issue: language, religious practice, family planning or the taboo subject of immigration. On all these dimensions, the government has shown no sign of accommodating what Uighurs say they have wanted for the longest time," he said.
Many Uighurs say they want religious freedom, measures to preserve their culture and language, and to be free from discrimination that makes it difficult for them to get jobs, passports and loans.
The government has promised to better distribute benefits from its investments in Xinjiang by requiring state-owned companies based there to hire more local minority workers. Without setting specific targets, some companies pledged in June to direct more benefits back to the region in response to Xi's call at the May meeting.
Oil and gas company PetroChina said it would boost training for local staffers to give them more opportunities to advance their careers. Xinjiang Zhongtai Chemical Co. said it would improve employment in southern Xinjiang's Hotan, Kashgar and Aksu areas by developing the walnut production industry there.
Another potential shift in Beijing's strategy might be to reduce some ethnic-based preferential policies in line with the opinion of some Chinese academics that they emphasize ethnic over national identity.
In an apparent nod to such views, the regional party chief Zhang Chunxian indicated last month that Uighurs in southern Xinjiang would no longer enjoy more lenient family planning rules that allow them to have up to three children in rural areas and two in cities. Han couples are allowed one less child in both cases.
No details have been released on changing child limits but a move to curtail Uighur births would stir a significant backlash.
Devout Muslims in southern Xinjiang already believe the Han are infringing on the rights of Muslims to have as many children as they want, said Barry Sautman, an expert on China's ethnic policies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"For Muslims, children are regarded as a gift from Allah. It's considered to be at least an interference if people are told that they must restrict the number of children they have," he said.
"They are more than opening a can of worms — they're entering a world of troubles if they decide to do that."