Mob Rule


Although thousands of riots go unreported every year in China, two Xinjiang-related incidents have cropped up in the news in the past ten days. Labor and business disputes, people in China worry, are threatening to destabilize social order amid the global financial crisis. First, on June 16, police in Urumqi fired warning shots to break up a crowd of sixty people protesting a construction project, fatally wounding a man. A Uyghur policeman, identified as Kudelet Kurban, accidentally triggered his gun, hitting Yao Yonghai, a supervisor with the Guanghui Real Estate Company in the neck. Yao, who had helped oversee the construction project in question, later died at the hospital. Like the suicide bombing in Urumqi last April, it seems that this incident stemmed from increasing anxieties about the struggling economy.

On June 26, however, ethnic clashes erupted between Han Chinese and Uyghur workers at a toy factory in Guangdong province in southeastern China, killing two people and injuring another 118. (See a blurry photograph of riot here.) Around 10 pm Friday night in Shaoguan city, some Han Chinese workers carrying metal pipes entered the Xuri Company dormitory and attacked their Uyghur colleagues, who struck back with knives. In May, the government had sent about six hundred migrant workers from Xinjiang as part of "Transfer Surplus Workforce Outwards" program to this toy factory. This program aims to give poor Uyghur workers job opportunities, while feeding east-coast sweatshops with cheap labor. Nevertheless, critics have leveled accusations that these factories employ under-aged migrants at a pittance; stories of abuse and rape by company bosses have also come to light in the Uyghur community. Moreover, they fear that the mass transfer of young Uyghurs across the country comes at the cost of eroding cultural identity in Xinjiang.

Initially a Xuri Toy Factory spokesman claimed that the different living habits between Han Chinese and Uyghurs had sparked the ethnic strife. More grisly details, however, are beginning to emerge. A string of robbery and rape cases hit the factory after the Uyghurs had arrived from Shufu County, Kashgar Prefecture in May, arousing suspicion among Han Chinese workers. Over the past two weeks, for instance, two charges of rape resulted in the temporary arrest and expulsion of some Uyghurs from the factory. On Friday night, a Han Chinese woman had entered a Uyghur dormitory where the residents tried to harass her. Her screams alerted her Han Chinese coworkers. Now, the internet is buzzing with allegations of "gang rape" at the toy factory. In the ensuing brawl of hundreds, people beat each other with a hundred fire extinguishers and opened four fire hydrants, leaving the dormitory floors covered in blood and glass shards, according to eyewitness reports. Two Uyghurs were killed, and another twenty people were seriously wounded. Four hundred armed police arrived at the scene, who managed to quell the mob by 4 am. The authorities then removed six hundred Uyghur workers from the premises by shuttling them by bus to other parts of the city for security reasons.

06/29/2009 Update: Police have arrested a former factory worker for spreading false rumors, which had led to the Shaoguan incident. Failing to find new work after quitting his job at Xuri Toys, this man posted the following message on a local website: "Six Xinjiang boys raped two innocent girls" at the factory. It remains unclear if the previous crimes at Xuri Toys in early June were also linked to internet gossip.

06/30/2009 Update: Two more "eyewitness" reports have surfaced along with many more cell-phone pictures on the internet, translated from Chinese by the blog ESNW. RFA has also published an in-depth report, quoting Chinese reactions on Twitter. I want to stress that the Shaoguan police largely have debunked the rumors posted on these sites; most of the Han Chinese discontent resulted from recent economic problems in the Guangdong area, intensified by unreasonable fears towards minorities.


The arrest of Zhu puts the incident into a whole different light. It goes from Chinese workers indignant at a lack of justice (since these rumors state that the Uyghurs weren't punished sufficiently by the law for such heinous crimes) to Han people scapegoating the "Other" for economic difficulties they face, and turning hot air into proactive, aggressive violence against Uyghurs for almost entirely racial reasons. And I say that because this individual was tapping into some extremely potent stereotypes about young Uyghur males being thugs (rapists, theives, separatists, etc.) and his coworkers who went over to the Uyghur dormitory with weapons bought right into that stereotype with swiftness and violence.

The damage has been done. Internet blogging portals and even some news sites circulated these absolutely incredible rumors about Uyghurs gang raping women and "dragging" them into their dormitories (dens of thuggery and rape and separatism naturally). The police have swept all this away but now readers of these stories are getting these internal stereotypes strongly reinforced.

And frankly, I'd like to see more evidence on this "string" of rapes and robberies mentioned in that Yahoo link. I think it's worth mentioning that, according to the article you link, such a striking allegation was based off of "有消息稱" and "有消息指" which, frankly, is entirely unconvincing. They should name their sources.

This all naturally depends on how much one is inclined to believed the police, but:


Seems to wrap up some issues.

True, this is the Chinese police we're talking about here but since there aren't any political or separatist issues involved here I don't think there is anything to hide - if anything, past cases indicate that the police are actually *over* eager to level charges against Uyghurs so that leads me to believe this is legit.

Hey P, thanks. I was blogging as the story was unfolding, and it seems much more likely now that the Uyghurs in question were innocent. I wonder if the girl screaming in the Uyghur dormitory was a complete fabrication, or if someone sent the girl there as a pretext for starting a riot.

One of my friends pointed out that the arrest and quick release of the Uyghur "perpetrator" from the June 14 "rape" indicates that the man was not guilty, not that the police were incompetent (which I think one of the article may have insinuated).

RFA and ESNW also posted some interesting translations of Chinese sentiment regarding Shaoguan. I'll post that in the second update.

The Han workers in this toy factory are exceedingly unlikely to have been Cantonese. Guangdong's manufacturing industry consists of factories owned by foreign companies, Hong Kong and Taiwan entrepreneurs, local Cantonese industrialists and some businessmen from elsewhere in China. The labour force are almost entirely migrant labourers from elsewhere, and rarely do they even speak Cantonese at all. Most will be from Hunan, Henan, Sichuan and the Northeast.

Simon, thanks so much for catching that egregious mistake. I was completely wrong about the identity of the workers at Shuri. I've changed it accordingly.