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.