When the deadly three-hour fight broke out in the Xuri toy factory, employees thought at first that the screams and shouts were the new arrivals dancing.
It was an easy mistake to make. When the first young migrants arrived two months earlier, they did not speak the local language and so danced each night to make friends with their new workmates.
But the jollity was not enough to transcend the huge religious, cultural and geographical divide that separated the new arrivals from the local people.
The Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs had been brought 4,800 kilometers across China to work and live alongside the Han majority in Guangdong Province, the semi-tropical workshop of the world. It proved a lethal combination.
On the night of June 26, two Uighurs were killed by a Han mob. The fury and hatred from that episode was rapidly transmitted back across the country via the Internet and mobile phone to Xinjiang, the Uighurs’ home. Little more than a week later, thousands of Uighur protesters took to the streets of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, slaughtering Han people in the worst race riots in modern Chinese history. The explosion of violence on one side of China was far deadlier than the distant spark that ignited it.
The first few Uighur migrants arrived at the toy factory on May 2. Han colleagues initially treated them as a curiosity.
“At first, we thought they were fun because in the evenings they danced and it was very lively,” said a female worker who gave her name as Ma. “But then many others arrived. The more of them there were, the worse relations became.”
Within a few weeks, 818 Uighurs had been transplanted into the factory under a controversial government program to encourage migration from poorer western regions such as Xinjiang to wealthy eastern provinces such as Guangdong. The authorities say this is an important step toward closing the gulf in incomes and providing jobs for the estimated 1.5 million surplus workers in Xinjiang.
Exile groups have condemned the policy as an attempt to assimilate Uighurs into Han culture. They see their homeland being stripped of oil, gas, coal and now young people, particularly women, who make up the majority of the migrants.
As the Han have flowed into Xinjiang under the government’s Go West policy, some of its population has been nudged east by the declining environment in Xinjiang, government incentives and the lure of a modern life.
Two hundred thousand Uighurs have made the move since the start of last year. Most are teenagers and leaving home to work for the first time. Typically, they sign a one to three-year contract then travel to factory dormitories in the humid semi-tropics.
Monthly pay ranges from 1,000 yuan to 1,400 yuan (US$146 to US$205), on a par with local workers, but many get the additional benefit of free bed and board.
But parachuting in thousands of Uighurs into a very different environment has created tensions. Shaoguan has seen an influx of migrants that has swollen the population to 3 million. Industrial estates are expanding into former farmland. The Xuri toy factory was an orchard three years ago. Today, it employs 18,000 people and had plans to quadruple the workforce.
The center of this instant community is a giant TV screen sponsored by Pepsi that sits at the base of an electricity pylon outside the factory gate. Hundreds gather here each night to watch kung fu dramas after their shifts. They say the Uighurs made themselves unpopular.