Is the president of China responsible for riot control?

Xinjiang, stability and saving face

Why does the president of the People’s Republic of China have to leave the G-8 summit in Italy and rush back home? So there are unprecedented riots across Xinjiang’s towns and cities, but surely, controlling them doesn’t require the president’s personal presence. Therefore the official explanation, that he returned to China “due to the situation” in Xinjiang, is both vague and unconvincing.

In fact, taken at face value, the official explanation suggests that the Chinese government is not too confident of its ability to maintain social stability in the face of public unrest. This supports the view that “authoritarian states”, as the Wall Street Journal writes today, “are typically less stable than they appear, and China is no exception.” Therefore the triumphalism surrounding China’s arrival as a global power should tone itself down a little.

On the other hand, panicky as the Communist party leadership might be, the Chinese government has shown time and again that it is capable of suppressing mass unrests—even if its methods make you queasy. Going by this line of reasoning, it could well be the queasiness factor that caused Hu Jintao to fly back to Beijing in a hurry. He would have found it rather embarrassing to have to face questions from the international media assembled in the Italian town of L’Aquila on the Xinjiang situation, or indeed on the China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities.

It’s probably both. The international leaders attending the G-8 summit will certainly miss Mr Hu. They should contemplate on the implications arising from the reasons of his absence.