For the past three decades, news stories about China have often reflected its rapid growth, its rising financial power and its status as a superpower in the making. But reports of ethnic tension and unrest in minority regions have raised serious questions about the country's stability, the distribution of its wealth and long-term relations between the Han majority and other groups.
The violent riots in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, killed more than 150 people in the remote northwestern area, the worst ethnic clash in recent memory. Gruesome television footage of burning, looting, blood dripping down the faces of innocent civilians and the following crackdown by authorities were reminiscent of last year's angry outburst in Lhasa, Tibet, which left at least 22 people dead.
The immediate cause of the protest is reportedly the beating death of two Uyghur workers in a toy factory in southern China. But the riots are likely rooted in resentment of the growing Han Chinese presence in the predominantly Muslim region.
Xinjiang - the "New Frontier" - was incorporated into China in the 18th century by what was then the mighty Qing dynasty. It is now the country's largest administrative unit, occupying one sixth of all Chinese territory, a landmass bigger than Quebec.
According to an official census, the Han Chinese population grew from just 6 per cent in 1949 to 40 per cent in 2000, not including a large number of migrant workers and members of the armed forces stationed there with their families. The Han now hold majority status in northern and eastern parts of Xinjiang, and account for more than 75 per cent of the population in Urumqi. In contrast, the same census shows that the Han population in the Tibet Autonomous Region is less than 10 per cent and in Lhasa, 17 per cent.
Such a large inflow of Han population over time is clearly a reflection of Beijing's strategic thinking about the region's importance. Located deep inland and sparsely populated, Xinjiang has been a nuclear weapon testing ground and strategic missile base since the 1960s. Rich in energy and mineral resources, it has become one of China's most vital energy suppliers, with oil and gas accounting for 60 per cent of the regional economy.
Xinjiang's geopolitical location is also vital to China's worldwide energy security calculations. With 80 per cent of China's oil imports coming from the Middle East and Africa by way of sea routes that Beijing considers vulnerable, Central Asian energy is one of Beijing's best options for diversification. In the past few years alone, China has built its first West-East gas pipeline (sending natural gas directly from Xinjiang to Shanghai) and completed the first Kazakhstan-Xinjiang pipeline (making it possible for the energy-rich former Soviet republic to send oil directly to China). Several more pipelines are under construction from other Central Asian countries, all through Xinjiang.
Beijing has maintained tight control of the region by stationing large divisions of the People's Liberation Army there since the early 1950s, and arranged for demobilized troops and their families to settle permanently as production and construction farm units. And the central government has responded to resistance or separatist activities with an iron fist.
Realizing that force alone cannot maintain stability, Beijing has poured in a large amount of economic incentives to the Uyghur region. In the past five years, under the government's "Western development program," designed to boost inland economic growth, Xinjiang's GDP has nearly doubled and most people's living standards have improved.
But just as in Tibet, the local population has viewed the increasing unequal distribution of wealth and income between China's coastal and inland regions, and between urban and rural areas, with an additional ethnic dimension. Most are not separatists, but they perceive that most of the economic opportunities in their homeland are taken by the Han Chinese, who are often better educated, better connected and more resourceful. The Uyghurs also resent discrimination against their people by the Han, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Such frustrations and grievances need to be addressed in the long run with innovative policy initiatives if President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are to be true to their words of building a "harmonious society." The rioters who have committed crimes against the innocent must be punished according to the law, but it will be wise for the Chinese leadership to reflect on the deeper causes of such fierce anger rather than relying on the brutal force of the state alone.
Wenran Jiang is the Mactaggart Research Chair of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, and a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.