UPDATED JULY 1
HONG KONG—Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have said they found no evidence that ethnic minority Uyghur laborers had raped two Chinese girls, a rumor they blamed for last week's ethnic fighting at a toy factory in Shaoguan city.
According to official media reports, police also detained a former worker at the city's Xuri toy factory for posting the rumor on the Internet in the first place.
"Six Xinjiang boys raped two innocent girls at the Xuri Toy Factory," ran the text of the posting, the official Xinhua news agency reported, quoting a Shaoguan municipal spokesman.
The detained man, surnamed Zhu, faked the information to express his discontent after the factory declined to re-hire him after his quit his job, Xinhua said.
"Police found no rape cases at the Xuri Toy Factory," the agency said, referring to a factory owned by Hong Kong-listed Lacewood International, which started making toys and handbags in 2007 in Shaoguan with 10,000 employees, one of the largest factories in the north of the province.
At least two people were killed and 118 injured after rival groups of workers fought each other in a pitched battle that began on the streets of Shaoguan last Thursday evening, and ended in the early hours of Friday.
The official China News Service said 400 riot police had to be deployed to quell the unrest, as hundreds of workers fought each other with knives and metal pipes.
An employee who answered the phone at Shaoguan's Yuebei No. 2 People's Hospital said the hospital had received around two dozen injured workers after the unrest. "Some are quite serious and in critical condition," she said.
Asked if she knew the reason for the clashes, she said: "The factory earlier recruited a lot of Xinjiang people. They are so bad and impolite. There were recent rape cases involving Xinjiang people," she said.
"Some young Xinjiang boys are involved in many robbery cases," she added.
"They are bad. You know, they don’t know Chinese and we don’t know their language. We can’t communicate with each other."
Another hospital worker, contacted Monday, said all patients wounded in the clashes were majority Han Chinese. "I don’t know where the injured Xinjiang people are hospitalized," the official said.
Shaoguan police declined to comment, and calls to the municipal propaganda department went unanswered during office hours.
Calls to other municipal government offices and to Lacewood International's Hong Kong headquarters during office hours Friday produced recorded messages.
Xinjiang workers left
A Lacewood worker in Shaoguan who asked not to be named declined to discuss the clash in detail, saying it was "very sensitive."
"I know about 4,000 workers left the factory after the incident. That is what I can tell you."
Another company staff member on duty in Shaoguan said, "Many reporters are coming to us now. I don’t know much. But all the Xinjiang employees have gone. They won't be back."
A spokesman from the Shaoguan municipal government was quoted as saying that the brawl was due to tensions between Uyghurs from the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, who are Turkic-speaking Muslims—and Han Chinese, who make up most of China's population.
The spokesman told the Associated Press that the fight started after a Han Chinese girl entered a dormitory where Uyghur workers were staying.
Uyghur workers tried to harass her, and she screamed. The spokesman would not give his name or give details on the two people who died.
But a farmer from Zamin, in Xinjiang's Kashgar prefecture, said he heard that the clash was touched off by Uyghur boys who refused to tolerate the sexual harassment of Uyghur girls by their Han Chinese handlers.
“The kids from [Zamin] were bullied by the Chinese from the factory and other factory employees. Uyghur girls were asked to give them massages,” the farmer said.
He said that the Uyghur boys, who normally protect Uyghur girl workers, were separated and assigned to work in different assembly lines.
“Afterwards, the girls were taunted and touched by the Chinese…The Uyghur boys could not tolerate it. Friction accumulated little by little and caused this clash,” the farmer said.
A Uyghur youth, who works at a different factory in Guangdong, said it was hard to be sure of what caused the clash because authorities had taken the Uyghurs at the Lacewood factory to a hotel in an undisclosed location, cutting off their line of communication.
“When we tried to call them, all their cell phones were shut off,” the boy said.
Photos posted online from Shaoguan during the unrest showed hundreds of people on the streets between tall residential buildings, with rescue vehicles and armed police advancing along the street.
Debris and bricks littered the area, with dozens of onlookers crowded into the balconies of the overlooking buildings, from where the photos were apparently taken.
More than 60 of those injured were still in hospital, and the 14 critically injured were in a stable condition, Xinhua quoted doctors as saying Sunday.
Dilshat Rashit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the incident was very damaging to Uyghurs' public image and cited slander against the man originally accused online of raping a Han woman.
"According to my understanding, Uyghur laborers in China have been the targets of long-term policies that are racially discriminatory from both the government and enterprises, and there were a number of restrictions on their lives of various kinds," he said.
He said Uyghurs were often forced out of their homelands in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by such policies.
"If they refuse any arrangement made on their behalf by the government, they would be put under pressure of different kinds. For example, economic sanctions in the form of fines, or refusal to allocate land, or the allocation of an inferior plot of land," said Rashit, adding that such actions were often carried out under the aegis of "poverty reduction" policies in Xinjiang.
"These so-called poverty reduction schemes have forced Uyghurs into other parts of China, whether it be Guangdong or other regions. All of this cheap Uyghur labor is actually forced by the Chinese government, which uses coercive measures to keep up the supply."
References to "Shaoguan," "mass fighting," and "clashes" were being sent around the Chinese Web in the aftermath of the incident.
"Key words: Guangdong, Shaoguan, mass fighting. I'm not saying a word, just passing it on," wrote Twitter user toopooliu.
Another user, leku_johnw, tweeted: "From now on it's likely that a lot of capitalists will rule [against] using ethnic minority labor. However you look at this, it's not a good thing..."
In a comment on the blog post of Tibetan writer Woeser on ethnic discrimination in China, a user identified as "Xiaoxiao" called for harsher punishments for Uyghurs who robbed people in Chinese cities.
"I'm not a Han chauvinist. But the fact that there are Uyghur thieves the length and breadth of China is an undisputed reality. I understand totally that they are a 'small minority' and that they don't show us much about what all 'Xinjiang people' are like and so on," she wrote.
"My mother was robbed by one of these thieves. The police caught
him, made him give back the money, and let him go. When we asked why
they didn't treat him more harshly, we were told, 'ethnic policies,'"
Original reporting in Cantonese by Lam Lok-tong, in Mandarin by Tang Qiwei, and in Uyghur by Mamatjan Juma. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.