It would be hard to exaggerate the symbolism, or the embarassment, of the Chinese President Hu Jintao having to rush away from the G8 summit in Italy to cope with the outbreak of violence from the Uighur people back home. This was after all the meeting of the world's Big Boys to which China had been invited as the coming power, a moment when it could exert its new-found influence in the discussions on trade, recession and the environment, while the riots which were forcing Hu Jintao's return had been presented as a provincial disturbance which the Chinese authorities had brought quickly under control.
The demonstrations, and the reporting, are unlikely to last long as the government moves now to crack down with a vengeance, foreign correspondents or no foreign correspondents. The one thing that Beijing fears, the thing that successive governments in Peking have always feared, is anarchy in the provinces. As soon as the world recession started to bite last year, Beijing's first thoughts were how to remove the potential cause of trouble among unemployed immigrants to the cities back to the country and how to keep the countryside stable now that the safety valve of emigration to the industrial centres was no longer available. Little wonder that China has announced public spending programmes, rural assistance and social security schemes way beyond the dreams of even such counter-cyclical spenders as Gordon Brown.
That it should be the minority Uighurs who have proved to be the source of explosion appears to have caught the authorities off guard. In the broadest sense the Uighur problem is the same as the Tibetan one. Just as with Tibet, Xinjiang has always been a separate region with its own language, race and customs, for a time with even an independent government until Mao moved in to bring it under direct military control in 1949. Just as with the Tibetans, initial suppression of the local community has more recently been succeeded by a policy of formal recognition of local culture through the granting of semi-autonomous status alonside a ruthless policy of moving in Han immigrants to change the balance of the population.
It is this policy of demographic colonialism, along with the favours granted to the Han citizens through direct subsidies (even, in the case of Tibet, to promote intermarriage) and language preference in schools and jobs that is causing the most fierce resentment. "Cultural genocide" is what the Dalai Llama has called it. In Xinjiang it has meant the replacement of old markets with spanking new building in which Han merchants have preferential access and the building of new mosques (heavily subsidised by the Saudis) that brings the mullahs under ever tighter control.
The Chinese government presents this – not altogether insincerely – as an economically modernising policy in which new building and immigration is boosting jobs and incomes. Opposition, on this argument, could only come with those rooted in the past or, more likely, stirred up by foreign interests.
That may be how it looks to Beijing but to the local Uighurs, what they see is their own livelihood and identity being increasingly swamped by "foreigners". In the case of Tibet, the first eruptions of violence took place at the fringes of the Tibetan people and then spread to the centre as reports of deaths and suppression reached the capital. So too with the Uighurs. The first riots took place well to the south in Guangdong with an ethnic row between Uighurs and Han in a factory last month. Reports of this set off the demonstrations and counter demonstrations in Urumqi that have killed 156 this month, the largest loss of life in a civilian disturbance since Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.
It would be foolish to believe that this outbreak will end in any more a benign conclusion than the recent Tibetan riots. Beijing doesn't tolerate what it describes as "splittism" and when it comes to minorities, it has to be said, nor does the majority of its 92 per cent Han population. Its problem is less the political challenge of separatism – that it has dealt with through extensive crackdowns and imprisonments, the more so since the Olympic games. But the ethnic problem – just as with the Tibetans – has been allowed to fester for years and grows worse each year as the numbers of Hans grow closer to overwhelming the local population (they already account for 40 per cent of the population of Xinjiang, to the Uighur's 45 per cent and are now in the majority in Urumqi).
Not the least worrying feature of the Uighurs' case is that the region lies next to the Muslim central Asian republics on whom China relies for energy. It cannot afford too much trouble from its own Muslims. That poses a problem not just for the Chinese government but for the world outside. The whole point of the invitation to attend the G8 meeting was to draw China into a kind of global top table of the big and powerful, partly as a more effective alternative to the now widely denigrated UN and its Security Council. The G8 is seen as more than a club of the rich industrialised nations swapping ideas on trade and economics as originally conceived. As its deliberations on Iran and Afghanistan show, it is now pushing to a much wider political role.
China has all the right credentials in terms of size, economic weight, military muscle and global influence. It clearly wants to take a more active role in world affairs, not least because of its own resource problems. It needs – and should – have a voice on issues of trade, currency exchanges and international financial flows. But in other ways it remains a country outside the industralised nation sphere, with a deep suspicion of Western policies and outside interference in what it regards as its regional hegemony. And it is certainly not, as the Uighur riots have illustrated, a signed-up member of the peace and democracy brigade.
When the G8 comes out to lecture Iran on its human rights, will it also discuss Beijing's policies towards the Uighurs and Tibetans? And when Hu Jintao left Pisa airport before the summit began, did he feel that he was abandoning his chance for world leadership or did he simply conclude that international gatherings were fine as far as they went but for China it was domestic stability that mattered?