HONG KONG—A year after an attack on ethnic minority Uyghurs at the Xuri Toy Factory in southern China’s Shaoguan left at least two people dead, sparking further ethnic tensions across the country, no Uyghur workers remain on the payroll, workers said.
A Han Chinese worker at the factory, who was there when the violence was sparked in late June last year by the rumor of a sexual assault on a Chinese woman by Uyghurs, said the anniversary had passed without comment or incident, and that production had continued as normal.
“The actual situation on the ground was far worse than the rumors circulating on the Internet,” he said.
But he declined to give details, nor to elaborate on the reasons for the clashes.
He said he was convinced that the clashes were caused by a lack of mutual understanding.
“It was a misunderstanding,” he said.
“The Uyghur workers lived on one floor and the Han lived on the floor above them. They never visited each others’ floors and they had nothing to do with each other.”
“Both ethnic groups have different languages and cultures,” he said. “There was a huge misunderstanding sparked by the fact that they had no way to communicate.”
“This wasn’t a matter of just one or two days.”
He said the 800-strong Uyghur contingent at the plant had all left the factory by the Lunar New Year celebrations in February.
“Some of them went elsewhere in the Pearl River Delta to work, some to inland provinces, and some went back to Xinjiang,” the worker said.
According to reports at the time, the violence began at 2 a.m., June 26, 2009, between Han and Uyghur workers at the Xuri toy factory.
Official media reported the deaths of two Uyghur workers, although overseas Uyghur groups said the number was much higher.
Authorities detained the remainder of the Uyghur work force in isolation for their own protection outside the city, workers said at the time.
Several hundred people were involved, and 400 armed police were deployed to break up the fighting. Of the 120 people reported injured, 81 were Uyghurs and 39 were Han, according to official reports.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the authorities had kept up surveillance of Uyghurs who were involved in the June 26 violence in Shaoguan, ahead of the anniversary.
“They have been sent away to other parts of China, both the victims and the other people who also know what happened,” Raxit said.
“They are still under tight control from the government, and have been cut off from contact with the outside world.”
He said the practice of forcing Uyghurs who are still legally minors to work for very low wages in factories across China was continuing, despite the Shaoguan violence.
He said young Uyghur girls are especially at risk, being forced to accompany Han Chinese to sing, eat, and drink in the evenings, a practice which denies them a normal life.
He said a lack of opportunity in their hometowns drives Uyghurs to take low-paid work elsewhere in China.
Raxit said the majority of higher-status work in Xinjiang is given to Han Chinese by government officials.
An official who answered the phone at the labor bureau in Xinjiang’s Shufu county, which sees a huge exodus of young Uyghurs to other Chinese provinces in search of work, declined to comment on the Shaoguan incident.
Labor exchange goes on
But he said the government’s labor policy of helping Uyghurs to seek work elsewhere is unchanged.
“There has been no [decrease in the numbers of Uyghurs seeking work elsewhere],” the official said. “[The procedures are] the same as before.”
Asked about the Shaoguan incident, he said: “Don’t ask me, ask the leaders.”
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have simmered for years, erupting in the regional capital Urumqi in rioting that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
The violence was sparked after a peaceful protest by Uyghurs in Urumqi calling for a full investigation into the Shaoguan violence, the World Uyghur Congress said at the time.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China’s ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Hai Nan. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.