China’s military has been teaching its soldiers in the unruly region of Xinjiang folk dances and songs as part of efforts to improve relations with the minority people who live there, it said on Wednesday. Hundreds of people have been killed in violence in the far western region in the past few years. The government blames the unrest on Islamist militants who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan for minority Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and hail from Xinjiang. Chinese forces in Xinjiang, which also borders Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, are at the “centre of the storm” when it comes to fighting militants and separatists, the Communist Party committee for the Xinjiang military command wrote in the official People’s Liberation Army Daily.

Their job is more than just fighting, it said, pointing to the thousands of activities they have arranged in the last five years going into villages to “explain the party’s ethnic and religious policies ... and refute rumours”, it said.

Soldiers have also told to get closer to the people by learning the languages, folk songs and folk dances of the peoples of Xinjiang to “make friends with the minority masses”, the command said.

“With face-to-face communication and heart-to-heart exchanges (we can) increase ethnic unity and feelings, like the closeness between fish and water,” it said.

“The story of the unity between people, military and government, military and the people, and ethnic unity are as plain to see as the grapes of Turpan, and all are as close as pomegranate seeds, and can never be split apart,” it added, referring to a part of Xinjiang famous for its grapes. Many Uighurs chafe at Chinese restrictions on their culture, language and religion. China says it offers broad freedoms in Xinjiang, though few Chinese officials make the effort to learn Uighur or other minority languages or understand much about Islam in what is officially an atheist country.