The Chinese president Hu Jintao cut short a trip to Italy for the G8 summit and returned home today to deal with the crisis in China's Xinjiang region, in what observers said was an unprecedented move. Mr Hu's sudden return came after fresh ethnic strife erupted yesterday in Urumqi, capital of China's north-west region, as thousands of Han Chinese armed with makeshift weapons marched through the city where 156 died in weekend riots.
He arrived in China early today "in light of the current situation in Xinjiang," the foreign ministry said in a statement on its website. The G8 summit was set to open today in the central Italian town of L'Aquila and, although China is not a member of the Group of Eight nations, much of the talks were to include emerging powers. Mr Hu's decision not to attend the summit and postpone a subsequent state visit to Portugal was "unprecedented," according to Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.
"I have never seen a Chinese president shorten a trip abroad before. They never tell you there are ever any signs of panic, [but] there is clear concern," he said. "It shows that no important decisions can be taken without him ? he is the only link between civil and military power." Mr Hu is head of the Central Military Commission, which wields power over the nation's armed forces, as well as being Communist Party chief and president.
Sarah McDowall, a political analyst for research group IHS Global Insight, said his return from such a high-profile summit illustrated high governmental concern over the unrest. "He was expected to push for China to have a more important role in developing international monetary policy at the G8, which is a hot topic at the moment," she said. "So the fact that he's flying back in a complete last minute turnaround shows there is major concern among the top leadership."
The state councillor Dai Bingguo will take part in the G8 summit on Mr Hu's behalf, the foreign ministry said. The chaos that gripped Urumqi yesterday came in response to unrest two days earlier that saw thousands of members of the mainly Muslim Uighur community take to the streets in deadly riots that also led to more than 1,000 injuries. Today, Urumqi was once again plunged into chaos as Han Chinese and Uighurs rearmed themselves with makeshift weapons, leading to confrontations and violence, despite a massive show of force by the Chinese military.
The Han are China's dominant ethnic group, making up 91.5 per cent of the nation's 1.3 billion people, according to the latest government figures. But in Xinjiang, a vast region of deserts and mountains bordering Central Asia, eight million Turkic-speaking Uighurs make up nearly half the population. Uighurs have consistently complained about discrimination and repression under communist Chinese rule over the past 60 years, accusations the government denies.