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China to spend $4.6 bln on airports in restless Xinjiang

Originally published by Reuters,Jan 31 2011

By Ben Blanchard

 BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese government will spend around 30 billion yuan over the next five years on new airport projects in the restless far western region of Xinjiang, state media reported on Monday.

The government will build four new airports and expand or relocate six others, so that by 2015 Xinjiang will have 22 airports handling civil flights, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The number of passengers using Xinjiang’s airports are expected to almost double by 2015 compared with 2010, to around 20 million people, it added.

Energy-rich Xinjiang is strategically located at the crossroads of Central Asia, and Beijing has shown its determination to keep a tight grip on the region, which has been wracked by ethnic unrest in recent years.

The government has invested billions in developing Xinjiang, which has been accompanied by an influx of majority Han Chinese. Many Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic people native to Xinjiang, resent the growing Han presence in the region.

China has likewise spent generously on transport infrastructure in another sensitive part of the country, Tibet, opening a fourth civil airport there last year.

Beijing says that the new airports, roads and a railway to Tibet will promote development and help raise living standards. Tibet activists say it will speed up the pace of Chinese migration there and dilute Tibetan Buddhist culture.

Air travel is developing rapidly in China on the back of a booming economy.

China has big plans for its airport network, especially in poorer and more remote regions in the far west. But many of these stylish new airports have struggled to attract customers and languish with just a few flights a week, or none at all.