President Hu Jintao’s return to China, cutting short his attendance at the G8 meeting in Italy, reinforces how seriously the Party leadership takes the challenge to its credibility caused by the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang.
Security forces will be able to reassert control, if not necessarily peace, in Urumqi, but the risk of further outbreaks there and elsewhere (one elsewhere being Tibet) is rising. One question is how well authorities can control Han Chinese if they decide to take matters into their own hands. Han vigilante groups were reported on the streets of Urumqi on Wednesday in defiance of the authorities’ requests, and protesters from both sides have been out, with Uighurs complaining about the heavy handed crackdown.
Tensions are clearly still running high. Tens of thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed and Uighur quarters of the city cordoned off (to residents and foreign press) as a sweep for those involved in Sunday’s riot continues. Execution has been promised for the ringleaders. The city remains under curfew, quaintly described by state media as ‘traffic control’. The official death toll has risen to 156, mostly Han, but unofficial and unconfirmed reports have put it as high as 600, mostly Uighurs.
Hu, who has promoted a closing of the economic and social gap between the rich coasts and poor interior under his ‘harmonious society’ policy, now has to restore his regime’s credibility as well as regional stability. Further west, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which have Uighur minorities, will be looking on with concern at events in Xinjiang, if not to quite the same degree as they are being viewed from Beijing.