Whatever the facts behind the terrible events in Xinjiang, they underline one of the key vulnerabilities of China: its insecure energy resources. The problem is at the very heart of China's strategy for the future and Hu Jintao was wise to leave the G8 meeting in Italy to return to China. Mishandling Urumqi now could be devastating both for the future stability of the country he leads and for the Communist Party he heads.
Xinjiang, originally conquered by the Qing Dynasty armies in the mid-18th century (its name means "New Border") makes up one-fifth of China's landmass – and, more importantly, it is a region rich in mineral deposits, oil and precious metals. For an energy-hungry country, this combination makes for crucial territory. Besides its own resources, shared borders with Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and Pakistan make Xinjiang one of the three "energy entry points" into China, allowing access to the oil and gas in which China has directly invested so heavily in the Central Asian states.
China's determination to maintain the security of such routes counts above almost any other interest: that is why, for instance, it refused to allow Shell and BP to get involved in the construction of its long-awaited West-East pipeline and why it is so nervous about the threat of sabotage from Uighur separatists. Blocking off these routes would be like binding up the wind pipes on which China relies to live.
China would love to reduce its reliance on these routes. It has been a net importer of oil since 1993; only three major oil fields are used in China. The untapped potential in Xinjiang remains the most realistic way to avoid reliance on Russia and imports from the Middle East or Africa.
But China's strategy for growth does not only rely on fuel. The strategy to increase gross domestic product by means of intense manufacturing in the east requires a hefty supply of copper and aluminium and China is the biggest user of minerals and metals in the world. Xinjiang, like Tibet, is a key source of such raw materials.
Uighur separatism is a serious threat to the resource security that China craves. The Uighurs on the other hand cannot help but feel that their territory is having everything taken from it and is receiving nothing in return. That tension is bound to be released, but the central state cannot afford a repeat of events like those of the past few days. With the world looking on, the last thing that Hu Jintao needs is proof that in some respects, China is terribly weak.
The writer is the author of Friends and Enemies: the Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of ChinaReuse content