At a Factory, the Spark for China’s Violence
SHAOGUAN, China — The first batch of Uighurs, 40 young men and women from the far western region of Xinjiang, arrived at the Early Light Toy Factory here in May, bringing their buoyant music and speaking a language that was incomprehensible to their fellow Han Chinese workers.
“We exchanged cigarettes and smiled at one another, but we couldn’t really communicate,” said Gu Yunku, a 29-year-old Han assembly line worker who had come to this southeastern city from northern China. “Still, they seemed shy and kind. There was something romantic about them.”
The mutual good will was fleeting.
By June, as the Uighur contingent rose to 800, all recruited from an impoverished rural county not far from China’s border with Tajikistan, disparaging chatter began to circulate. Taxi drivers traded stories about the wild gazes and gruff manners of the Uighurs. Store owners claimed that Uighur women were prone to shoplifting. More ominously, tales of sexually aggressive Uighur men began to spread among the factory’s 16,000 Han workers.
Shortly before midnight on June 25, a few days after an anonymous Internet posting claimed that six Uighur men had raped two Han women, the suspicions boiled over into bloodshed.
During a four-hour melee in a walkway between factory dormitories, Han and Uighur workers bludgeoned one another with fire extinguishers, paving stones and lengths of steel shorn from bed frames.
By dawn, when the police finally intervened, two Uighur men had been fatally wounded and 120 other people were injured, most of them Uighurs, according to the authorities.
“People were so vicious, they just kept beating the dead bodies,” said one man who witnessed the fighting, which he said involved more than a thousand workers.
Ten days later and 1,800 miles away, the clash in Shaoguan provoked a far greater spasm of violence in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. On July 5, a demonstration by Uighur students protesting what they said was a lackluster investigation of the factory brawl gave way to a murderous rampage against the city’s Han residents, followed by killings carried out by the Han.
In the end, at least 192 people died and more than 1,000 were injured, according to the government. Of the dead, two-thirds were Han, the authorities said. Uighurs insist that the toll among their own was far higher.
Shaoguan officials, who said that the rape allegations were untrue, contended that the violence at the toy factory was used by “outsiders” to fan ethnic hatred and promote Xinjiang separatism. “The issue between Han and Uighur people is like an issue between husband and wife,” Chen Qihua, vice director of the Shaoguan Foreign Affairs Office, said in an interview. “We have our quarrels, but in the end, we are like one family.”
Li Qiang, the executive director of China Labor Watch, an advocacy group based in New York that has studied the Shaoguan toy factory, has a different view. He said the stress of low pay, long hours and numbingly repetitive work exacerbated deeply held mistrust between the Han and the Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority that has long resented Chinese rule.
“The government doesn’t really understand these ethnic problems, and they certainly don’t know how to resolve them,” Mr. Li said.
In the government’s version of events, the factory clash was the simple product of false rumors, posted on the Internet by a disgruntled former worker who has since been arrested.
A few days later, the authorities added another wrinkle to the story, saying that the fight was prompted by a “misunderstanding” after a 19-year-old female worker accidentally stumbled into a dormitory room of Uighur men.
The woman, Huang Cuilian, told the state news media that she screamed and ran off when the men stamped their feet in a threatening manner. When Ms. Huang, accompanied by factory guards, returned to confront the men, the standoff quickly escalated.
The Uighur workers have since been sequestered at an industrial park not far from the toy factory. Officials refused to allow a reporter access to the workers, and a large contingent of police officers blocked the hospital rooms where two dozen others were recovering from their wounds.
“They want to lead a peaceful life and not be bothered by the media,” said Mr. Chen, the Shaoguan official. He said the government of Guangdong Province, where Shaoguan is located, and the factory would provide them employment at a separate plant.
Officials at Early Light, a Hong Kong company that is the largest toy maker in the world, declined to comment.
In the city of Kashgar, the ancient heart of Uighur civilization, the Shaoguan killings have inflamed longstanding anger over the way China manages daily life in Xinjiang. Many Uighurs complain about policies that encourage Han migration to the region and say the government suppresses Uighurs’ language and religion. When it comes to employment, they say coveted state jobs go to the Han; a 2008 report by a United States Congressional commission noted that government job Web sites in Xinjiang set aside most teaching and civil service positions for non-Uighurs.
“If we weren’t so poor, our children wouldn’t have to take work so far from home,” said Akhdar, a 67-year-old man who, like many others interviewed, refused to give his full name for fear of reprisals from the authorities.
The Uighurs who work at the Shaoguan toy factory, all of them from Shufu County outside Kashgar, are part of a growing wave of 1.5 million people who have migrated from Xinjiang to more prosperous cities of coastal China. This year, more than 6,700 young men and women left Shufu County, according to government figures, part of an ambitious jobs export program intended to relieve high youth unemployment and provide low-cost workers to factories.
According to an article in the state-run Xinjiang Daily, “70 percent of the laborers had signed up for employment voluntarily.” The article, published in May, did not explain what measures were used to win over the remaining 30 percent.
But residents in and around Kashgar say the families of those who refuse to go are threatened with fines that can equal up to six months of a villager’s income. “If asked, most people will go, because no one can afford the penalty,” said a man who gave his name only as Abdul, whose 18-year-old sister is being recruited for work at a factory in Guangzhou but has so far resisted.
Some families are particularly upset that recruitment drives are directed at young unmarried women, saying that the time spent living in a Han city far away from home taints their marriage prospects. Taheer, a 25-year-old bachelor who is seeking a wife, put it bluntly. “I would not marry such a girl because there’s a chance she would not come back with her virginity,” he said.
Still, a few Uighurs said they were thankful for factory jobs with wages as high as $190 a month, double the average income in Xinjiang. One man, a 54-year-old cotton farmer with two young daughters, said he was ready to send them away if that was what the Communist Party wanted. “We would be happy to oblige,” he said with a smile as his wife looked away.
Once they arrive in one of China’s bustling manufacturing hubs, the Uighurs often find life alienating. Mr. Li of China Labor Watch said many workers were unprepared for the grueling work, the cramped living conditions and what he described as verbal abuse from factory managers.
But the biggest challenge may be open hostility from Han co-workers, who like many Chinese hold unapologetically negative views of Uighurs.
Many Han say they believe that Uighurs are given unfair advantages by the central government, including a point system that gives Uighur students and other minorities a leg up on college entrance exams.
Zhang Qiang, a 20-year-old Shaoguan resident, described Uighurs as “barbarians” and said they were easily provoked to violence.
“All the men carry knives,” he said after dropping off a job application at the toy factory, which is eager to hire replacements for the hundreds of workers who quit in recent weeks.
Still, Mr. Zhang acknowledged that his contact with Uighurs was superficial. When he was a student, his vocational high school had a program for 100 Xinjiang students, although they were relegated to separate classrooms and dorms.
If he had any curiosity about his Uighur classmates, it was quashed by a teacher who warned the Han students to keep their distance. “This is not prejudice,” he said. “It is just the nature of their kind.”