BEIJING — A recent outbreak of ethnic unrest in China's northwestern border region has heightened fears of Communist Party leaders who view minority groups as a source of political instability, Western diplomats say. Beijing ordered Chinese troops to quell rioting in recent days around Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which borders the Soviet Union, diplomats say.
According to unconfirmed reports, up to 50 people were killed when troops put down Muslim minorities angered by a decision by Chinese authorities to halt the construction of a mosque.
Chinese officials have neither confirmed nor denied the reports of unrest. However, Beijing has barred foreign journalists, diplomats, and tourists from traveling to Kashgar.
The ethnic disturbance comes amid harsh warnings by Chinese leaders in recent weeks against what they call ``reactionary separatist organizations'' operating underground in Xinjiang with the aid of foreign ``spies'' and liberal activists in China.
Chinese leaders ``see minorities as a potential area of instability,'' said one Western diplomat on condition of anonymity, pointing to the recent antiseparatist statements as a sign of ``paranoia amid the leadership.''
But short of granting Xinjiang's predominantly Muslim ethnic groups true autonomy from Chinese rule, little can be done to eradicate the animosity between minority peoples and Han Chinese in the region, scholars and diplomats say.
``The tension is there, it's not going to go away,'' says Linda Benson, an assistant professor at Oakland University in Michigan who specializes in modern Xinjiang history.
Sporadic protests against Chinese domination have broken out in Xinjiang since 1980, when the Communist Party began easing its repression of minorities. Ethnic nationalism and religious solidarity have grown with the renewal of old ties with relatives and fellow Muslims in the Soviet Union, Turkey, and the Middle East, which hosts pilgrims from Xinjiang every year.
``There is a spillover effect'' from ethnic struggles across the border in the Soviet Union, says June Dreyer, a professor at the University of Miami in Florida who specializes in China's minorities. ``There's an awful lot of walking back and forth.''
Nevertheless, experts say that although underground resistance will persist, a full-fledged nationalist movement in Xinjiang is unlikely to emerge soon, because of the pervasiveness of the Chinese military and local informers.
``The PLA [People's Liberation Army] ... has tremendous control over minority areas,'' said the diplomat. If minorities rebelled, ``the PLA would just crush them.''
Minority groups in Xinjiang have waged repeated rebellions against Chinese domination since the 18th century.
Formerly part of Turkistan, Xinjiang was incorporated as a province by Qing Dynasty rulers in 1884. The desert region constitutes a sixth of China's territory.
In the early 1950s, Beijing launched a major down-to-the-countryside campaign that saw thousands of Han Chinese settle in Xinjiang.
The massive influx of Chinese immigrants has dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the region.
China's most recent census shows that by 1982 the number of Hans had lept to 5.2 million, nearly equal the Uygur population of 5.9 million.
``The Uygurs [Xinjiang's largest minority group] are very much concerned that soon they are going to be outnumbered by Hans,'' said Ms. Benson in a telephone interview.
In 1988, Beijing announced highly unpopular birth control measures that would fine minority couples who have more than two children. Minorities, who make up 60 percent of Xinjiang's population of 14 million, had been exempt from such controls.
The attempt to limit births has sparked protests and violent resistance among minorities.
Uygurs and other Xinjiang residents have also been angered by China's economic policies, which channel the region's abundant raw materials to factories in coastal provinces.
The flow of riches has led some in Xinjiang to protest that the region is ``colony'' of China.
Better educated Han Chinese take the best paid jobs and dominate Xinjiang's bureaucracy, which employs many minority officials but rarely in leading positions, diplomats say.
Ethnic groups complain that Beijing's erratic language policy has hampered their ability to compete. In 1949, Beijing banned the use of Arabic script, forcing minorities to use the Cyrillic alphabet. But as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1950s, Cyrillic was scrapped for the ``pinyin'' romanization widely used in China. With the loosening of cultural restraints in the 1980s, Arabic reemerged.
``Now there are `lost generations' of minority people in Xinjiang who can't read Arabic,'' Benson says.