No question, Hu's in charge of Xinjiang

By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Chinese President Hu Jintao cut short his trip to Europe

, canceled his attendance at the Group of Eight (G-8) meeting and returned home on Wednesday in the wake of the violence in Xinjiang. It was an unprecedented move.

This is the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China that a Chinese leader has scrapped a state visit overseas due to an unexpected domestic imbroglio. This suggests the situation in Xinjiang is so serious that Hu had to rush home to personally handle its aftermath.

Hu left Beijing on Sunday, July 5, for a working trip to Europe. That evening, riots erupted in Urumqi, capital city of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. At least 156 people were killed and more than 816 injured in the most violent ethnic clash in the country in decades.

In the subsequent crackdown, police shut down traffic in parts of the city and arrested over 1,400 rioters.The next morning, the state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted a government statement that "The situation was under control".

At the same time, the national media played down the Urumqi violence. Lead stories on China Central Television's evening news were activities of the party and state leaders. The Xinjiang incident was buried in the middle of its 30-minute broadcast. No national newspaper splashed the bloody violence across its front page.

Soon, new clashes flared on streets of Urumqi. On Tuesday, over 200 Uyghurs, mostly women, staged a protest in front of foreign reporters, demanding the release of their families arrested during Sunday's violence. Later, thousands of ethnic Han residents in the city, armed with bricks, bats and other makeshift weapons, began to counter-attack on groups of ethnic Uyghurs, most of them Sunni Muslims.

Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan, a member of the powerful 25-member politburo, made a public appeal for calm. Urumqi party secretary Li Zhi was televised standing on a truck, begging Han protesters to disperse. He shouted: "Please trust the government. We'll well handle the incident."

The Xinjiang government imposed a curfew in Urumqi on Tuesday evening as China's top security official was flown in to take command of law enforcement.

People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops from the neighboring Lanzhou Military Region were airlifted in on Tuesday to help restore public order. The mobilization of PLA troops suggests two things.

First, Beijing began to realize the situation in Xinjiang was much more serious and complicated than previously judged. If confrontations between the Han and Uyghur residents in Urumqi escalated, civil police and People's Armed Police (PAP) forces in the city would not be strong enough to handle the situation.

Second, Hu took charge while he was still in Italy for the G-8 summit. Traditionally, when a Chinese leader is out of the country, an appropriate stand-in carries out the presidential duties. In some cases, this provides an opportunity for a designated successor to earn experience.

For example, when a PLA Navy jet fighter collided with a US spy aircraft in April 2001, then-president Jiang Zemin was set to leave Beijing for a visit to South America. Jiang's designated successor, Hu Jintao, was authorized to deal with the incident. When Jiang was asked about the incident while aboard, he said, "I trust my colleagues at home will handle it well."

It is believed that when Hu left Beijing he entrusted Vice President Xi Jinping to oversee state affairs. Xi heads an ad hoc group set up after the riots in Tibet in March of 2008 to maintain political and social stability. As such, Xi should have been the top leader involved in the handling of the Xinjiang violence. It would have been an important opportunity to navigate a complicated situation.

But Xi, despite his sixth-ranked position in the nine-member politburo standing committee, has no authority to command PLA troops.

In China, the top command of the armed forces is the Central Military Commission (CMC), of which Hu is the chairman. In this system, only the CMC chairman or a vice chairman, with the authorization of the chairman, can give an order to mobilize the PLA. The two current CMC vice chairmen, General Guo Bohiong and General Xu Caihou, are not members of the politburo standing committee.

And while Xi is higher in rank, he has no authority over Guo or Xu. Under the circumstances, had Hu authorized Guo or Xu to move troops into Xinjiang, there would have been confusion in coordinating the crackdown. Only Hu's return would solve the problem. (In 2001, Hu had full authority to handle the Sino-US air collision incident, which involved the PLA, because he was also the first vice chairman of the CMC.)

The ethnic riots in Urumqi have revealed a loophole in China's political and military structure. None of the politburo standing committee members except Hu are CMC members. As indicated, when PLA troops are needed to maintain public order, problems occur if Hu is unavailable. To solve this dilemma, some analysts believe a politburo member, presumably Xi, will soon be appointed CMC vice chairman.

Hu ditched his European tour because the fast-moving situation in Xinjiang was escalating. Ethnic Han, inside and outside Xinjiang, were calling for "blood for blood". This is no one-off incident like the Sino-US air collision, and could very well explode if the authorities don't handle it properly.

It is rumored that some Han people in Beijing and Shanghai are planning street protests. Uyghur migrant workers - including those in the toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong, whose protests on June 26 led to Sunday's violence - are said to be fearful for their safety.

If Hu had followed through on his foreign tour, it is not hard to imagine that he would become a target of public accusations of indifference. Even as the situation seems to be calming down in Urumqi, it is still a tough job to minimize the impact of the conflict.

If not successfully contained now, the protests could easily spread. As China's top leader, Hu has to do his job - and he needs to be in the right spot to do it.