HONG KONG—Internet cafes in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have become a new setting for ethnic tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, according to local residents.
But police there say the severity of recent incidents has been overstated by the area's mostly Uyghur inhabitants.
Internet cafes in Aksu prefecture's Shayar county are frequented by young men from the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group. But the cafes are staffed by Chinese workers who mistreat their clientele, Uyghurs there said.
“The Internet cafes are one of the most common places in Shayar for ethnic disputes. These have occurred at least 15 to 20 times in recent years,” one Uyghur, who did not provide his name, said.
“All of the cafe's owners and guards are Chinese, and customers are young Uyghurs. The owners of the cafe hire young Chinese security guards who are disrespectful and rude,” he said.
Another Uyghur from the area, who asked not to be named, said that in the aftermath of disputes Chinese are rarely held to blame.
“Each time a dispute happens, police interrogate and arrest Uyghurs, but do not charge anyone on the Chinese side,” the man said.
“It is unlawful for guards to keep knives and clubs as security tools in public areas, but the guards will carry some kind of weapon anyway, and police close their eyes to this,” he said.
‘Why do the Chinese bully us?’
On Jan. 29, a dispute occurred at a Chinese-owned Internet café in Shayar township, seat of Shayar county, according to Uyghurs who witnessed the incident. The dispute began when a Uyghur who had been playing video games accidentally stepped on the foot of a security guard, they said.
The guard began pushing the player, while cursing and insulting him. Other security guards locked the doors to the café and began to attack the young man and several of his friends, according to accounts.
The incident occurred on the second floor of the café, but was clearly visible through windows facing the street, causing a large group of Uyghurs to gather and demand that the young men be released.
Police were called to the scene, but the security guards refused to open the door, and the authorities’ unwillingness to enter the café by force incensed the crowd.
Nabijan Dawut, a 20 year-old university student in the crowd, yelled “Look at this, why do the Chinese always bully us? Why don’t we help our brothers? How can we only look on without coming to their aid?”
When the police refused to enter, the crowd threw stones and chairs into the café, breaking in and rescuing the young men.
Six Uyghurs were hospitalized and five detained for inciting a riot following the event. Those detained included Nabijan Dawut and a classmate at the Xinjiang Transport University named Enver.
‘I found myself at the hospital’
A Uyghur named Iskander, hospitalized at Shayar county hospital, said that he had tried to get his friend to leave the Internet café during the dispute.
“I tried to make my friend leave, when suddenly I was beaten by another guard holding a stick. They pushed me into a room inside the cafe and beat me up again,” Iskander said.
“I found myself at the hospital the next day and do not know anything other than that,” he said.
Nabijan Dawut’s mother said this was the second incident her son had been involved in since a dispute in 2007, in which his finger had been cut off in an attack by a Chinese café guard.
“My son is at the detention center now where he will be held for 15 days … The police said my son’s crime is ‘provocation,’” she said.
“Why is it that when my son was injured by a Chinese man in 2007 and his finger was cut off, [his attacker] was not even detained for one day? But today my son is in the detention center for trying to rescue others who were beaten by Chinese guards," she said.
Dawut’s mother said that three months ago a court case was finally brought against her son’s attacker in the 2007 incident. But the judge then released the man, saying there was not enough evidence to convict him.
“I think the court is not lacking evidence, but lacking justice,” she said.
“The [first] case wasn’t even over. I was appealing to the Aksu middle court, and now here I am with a second case,” she said.
“We are victims in both cases. Now I really do not know what I should do. To where and to whom should I appeal?” she asked.
A second incident
Three days after the Jan. 29 incident, a similar dispute occurred in a neighboring Internet café when owners accused Uyghur youth playing video games of cheating.
This time, six Uyghurs were attacked by dozens of security guards, leaving two hospitalized, witnesses said.
Turdi, a young Uyghur who was injured during the clash and was being treated in Shayar county hospital, said that security guards locked the café’s doors during the fight and began to attack them.
The attack occurred around midnight, he said.
“We weren’t carrying anything [to defend ourselves] because we came to the Internet café to play, not to fight. But the Chinese side was well prepared and armed with knives and clubs,” Turdi said.
“Everybody knows that the café owner is one of the closest friends of police chief Hu, who is in charge of the Shayar township police station. That is why nobody has come to us to investigate the incident,” he said.
‘Nothing worth broadcasting’
Asked for comment, an official at the Shayar township police station who did not give his name said “You have been misinformed. Nothing happened in Shayar on the day of Jan. 29 or more recently.”
But the chief of the Shayar county police department, identifying himself only as Ekber, acknowledged that the incident had occurred, adding that he was unable to comment further.
“Actually it is very small thing and a normal event. There is nothing worth broadcasting,” Ekber said.
An official at the Shayar county business administration department who did not provide his name said he had heard about the incident and that his “office is investigating the event.”
A restive prefecture
Shayar county is part of Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture, where Uyghurs have staged the most resistance to Chinese rule in recent years.
On Aug. 10, 2008, a group of Uyghurs including two women attacked a police department and other government buildings with explosives in neighboring Kucha county.
The incident left 12 dead, including five of the attackers, who died following a confrontation with police in a Kucha marketplace. When discovered, two of the attackers detonated suicide bombs. Three were shot dead by police.
Targets of the attack included the city’s main police station, various government buildings, and shops owned by Han Chinese. Many Uyghurs view Han Chinese as unwanted colonists encouraged by the Chinese government to settle in Xinjiang and dilute Uyghur cultural traditions.
Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated from Uyghur by Shohret Hoshur. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes.