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.
“The Xinjiang people have a low level of civilization,” said a local shop owner. “They ordered beer and refused to pay for it. They pushed and shoved people who passed them on the street, and they chased and harassed the girls all the time.”
He said there was a rumor that Uighurs raped at least two women before the factory fight. One of the women killed herself afterwards, he said.
“The Xinjiang men weren’t punished. There is a different set of rules for them,” he said.
The government denies there were any rapes, but the allegation is repeated by almost all of the 20 or so local people that the Guardian spoke to, including a policeman who said the government was covering up an incident that could incite racial tensions. But no one could provide evidence or the names of the victims. Whether truth or rumor, the rape allegations had huge consequences, exacerbated by modern technology.
The fight started some time after 11pm on June 26, when a female worker was said to have called for help after being surrounded by chanting Uighur men, either near or inside their first floor rooms in the workers’ dormitory.
A security guard attempted to intervene, but was rebuffed. Agitated Han residents in the floors above smashed windows and rained shards of glass and other objects down below. A mob, initially only a couple of dozen strong, armed themselves with iron pipes, wooden staves and other tools and started fighting with the knife-bearing Uighurs.
As those involved called for reinforcements on their mobile phones, the brawl drew in hundreds. Video footage shot on a mobile phone and posted online shows a savage one-sided assault as Uighurs were severely beaten.
A local man said he took part in the assault because he was furious that the rapes had gone unpunished.
“I just wanted to beat them. I hate Xinjiang people,” he said. “Seven or eight of us beat a person together. Some Xinjiang people hid under their beds. We used iron bars to batter them to death and then dragged them out and put the bodies together.”
Squatting on his haunches in the shadows of a half-constructed apartment block, the Han man — who gave no name — said the government was lying about the death toll. He claims he helped to kill seven or eight Uighurs, battering them until they stopped screaming. He thinks the death toll is more than 30, including a few Han.
“When I see the news and they say only two people died, I am so angry. That must be wrong. How can they not be dead? I saw their heads bleeding,” he said.
The Guardian was unable to verify his claims. Nobody else put the death toll as high. The security forces did not arrive until two-and-a-half hours after the clashes started.
A policeman who was among them said only two people died.
“We got there late because it took a long time to assemble sufficient officers,” he said. “When we arrived, there was blood everywhere and dozens of badly wounded people lying on the ground. It took two days for them to clear up.”
The authorities say 118 were injured, many critically.
Hundreds of those involved in the violence then left the next day, locals said, to avoid arrest. For more than a week after the deadly brawl, the only arrest was of Zhu Gangye, a man accused of spreading the rumors about the rape of the two women. Police say he was a disgruntled former employee who made up the story to get revenge on the company after it refused to re-hire him.
Every computer screen at the local Internet cafe carries a warning: “Do not spread rumors. Do not upload or spread information about the toy factory.”
Yet the world’s biggest censor has been unable to keep a lid on what happened. Video of the brutality and photographs of the victims were quickly circulated on the Internet by Uighur exile groups, along with claims that the death toll was under-reported and that the police were slow to act.
Within days of the Shaoguan killings, Uighurs in Urumqi used e-mail to call for protests.
But the scale of the Uighur protest and its level of violence took everyone by surprise. Witnesses describe a peaceful but noisy crowd in the Central Square at 7pm that turned into an angry mob that set upon Han passers-by. Many victims were slashed, stabbed and beaten to death. The government says 156 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. The vast majority were Han.
The state media have published graphic images of the bloodied bodies of Han victims in Urumqi, but pictures and video of the violence against Uighurs in Shaoguan remain censored.
A day after the riots in Urumqi, police rounded up more than 1,000 Uighur suspects. But it was not until the following day — 10 days after the toy factory fight — that the Shaoguan police detained any Han in connection with the killings of the Uighur migrants.
Dousing the ethnic flames will be difficult. The state media have published stories about the return of harmony in Shaoguan and happy Uighurs returning gratefully to work, but the Guardian was turned away from the toy factory, dormitories and hospital. The Uighurs have been relocated to isolated dormitories more than 10km away and work in a separate factory.
A Communist Party official in Kashgar said 757 of the original 818 arrivals remain. The rest, he said, had gone home over the past two months because they were unhappy.
Those who are left are guarded by police. The migrants are segregated by fear. A Muslim restaurant in town says it supplies 600 orders of noodles every day. Other restaurants do the same. The food is picked up by officials and taken to the Uighurs’ camp. They dare not go into the city.
“They used to come at weekends to walk around,” said a drink seller in leafy Sun Yat-sen Park in the center of town. “But they have not returned since the fight.”
He said even the Uighur kebab sellers, who are unconnected to the factory group, have moved out.
Two Uighur workers were brought out for a press conference, surrounded by officials. They said they were very satisfied with their new accommodation and workplace. They denied there had been any rapes or that the death toll had been underplayed.
“We traveled thousands of kilometers together to come here and now two bodies have been sent home. Isn’t that proof enough?” said Bayi Aikemu, a young man who was a friend of one of the victims.
Shaoguan government spokesman Wang Qingxi (王青西) called the factory killings “a very ordinary incident,” which he said had been exaggerated to foment unrest.
Other officials said harmony has been restored. But the propaganda machine is struggling. At the genesis of the riot, there is little cause for the authorities to feel reassured.
Many factors contributed to the ethnic violence in Shaoguan and Urumqi, but mistrust has been magnified by new technology and old suspicions.
“Sometimes a rumor is like a snowball. It will become bigger and bigger, especially on the Internet,” said the head of the Shaoguan propaganda department. “If there is a lack of communication, it will create a market for rumors. If communication goes well, there is no space for rumors.”
In Shaoguan, they continue to swirl.
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