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The Uyghur Shaoguan Incident (June 25, 2009)

March 25 | No Comments

On this day one year ago riot police were called into a toy factory in Shaoguan (Guangdong province) to break up a brawl between Han and Uyghur workers. By the time calm had been restored 2 Uyghur had died and over 100 other people were injured.

It became known as the “Shaoguan Incident” and many point to this as the event that set the wheels in motion for the Urumqi riots one week later.

Why Are Uyghur in Guangdong?

The province of Guangdong, located near Hong Kong, is almost as far from Xinjiang as is Beijing or Shanghai.  I was shocked to learn that so many Uyghur people were living in that part of China and I was curious to find out why.

It turns out that back in 2008 the Xinjiang government came up with a plan to help a bunch of Uyghur men find jobs that they weren’t getting in Kashgar.

Whether they went willingly or were forced to leave their homes, I’m not sure, but I do know that close to 200,000 were relocated as part of this plan.

Some of those men ended up in a toy factory in Guangdong, where this event takes place.

The “Early Light” Toy Factory

Dormitories at the Guangdong toy factory were set up about the same as most cities in Xinjiang – they were separated by ethnic group. Uyghur migrants lived in one building while Han migrants lived in another.

Unlike Xinjiang, however, the Uyghur men weren’t used to living without Uyghur women and the Han migrant workers weren’t used to living around Uyghur.

It didn’t take long before rumors of rape started to circulate, some probably true and others likely fabricated.  The initial reports of what happened next are best described by a former Xinjiang blogger:

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.

What Really Happened?

A couple days later it was revealed that police had uncovered a completely different story:

Police in southern China have detained a man accused of spreading false rumours of rape over the Internet that sparked a deadly ethnic brawl at a toy factory on the weekend.

The man, a disgruntled former employee of the toy factory, had posted the message “Six Xinjiang boys raped two innocent girls” on a local website, a claim which police called “unfounded”.

Why is This Important?

Although the Shaoguan incident may be considered the straw that broke the camel’s back, it is not the only reason for the deadly riots in Urumqi the following week.

What this incident did, I believe, was shed light on many different problems that should have clued people in on a dangerous trend.

These problems include:

  • Relocation of Uyghur population: Instead of trying to create jobs in the cities where they were at, officials instead decided to relocate the unemployed population.
  • Ethnic Segregation: There’s a lot of mistrust between the Uyghur and Han groups, and separating the two did nothing to fix the existing racism on both sides.
  • Poor Working Conditions: I’m not talking about the actual factory here, although judging from what has happened at Foxconn there is plenty that needs to be addressed there.  What I’m referring to is the fact that despite repeated reports of rapes and brawls, authorities and factory management did nothing to alleviate the tensions.

Would the July riots still have happened without the Shaoguan incident?  I tend to think yes, although I do believe they sped up the process.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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