The central Government will continue to provide financial assistance to ethnic-minority regions, Premier Zhu Rongji said yesterday. Beijing would speed up construction of highways and railways, and build more irrigation and telecommunication facilities to help alleviate poverty in these areas, Mr Zhu said at the end of a conference on ethnic minorities. Unlike President Jiang Zemin, who blasted 'Western anti-China hostile forces' for instigating unrest in these areas when he opened the conference last weekend, Mr Zhu yesterday focused on measures to boost economies in such regions. Local governments were told to focus on unique features of their economies and avoid unhealthy competition with neighbouring provinces. Some provinces should develop tourism and animal husbandry while others should focus primarily on tourism, the Premier said. While Mr Zhu encouraged local governments to waste no time in construction efforts, he reminded officials to strike a balance when it came to protecting the environment. Natural forests must be preserved and given top priority, he said. The Premier stressed that the governments of ethnic-minority regions would take priority when the central Government decided its annual budget and investment plans. Meanwhile, more incentives would be offered to encourage professionals to work in these regions. Unlike coastal provinces, ethnic-minority regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Qinghai still rely heavily on Beijing for assistance. Farming continues to account for a significant portion of their economies. Local industries, most of which were established in the 1960s and 1970s, are much less efficient than their coastal counterparts. Beijing hopes to ease ethnic tension in these areas with generous economic policies, but hostility among different ethnic groups has continued to grow. Another reason behind their economic backwardness is the absence of market competition in these areas. Analysts say that since many enterprises in ethnic-minority regions are monopolies under Beijing's favourable policies, their managers often lack a sense of competition.