SHAOGUAN, China — Three weeks after simmering racial tension escalated to mayhem and a double murder at a toy factory here, about 750 Uighur workers remain largely out of sight, behind locked gates and guarded doors — perhaps because they are at the center of a storm that has brought international attention to a remote Chinese province.
Most of the Xinjiang migrants who arrived at the massive factory in northern Guangdong province in May are apparently being held in a branch workshop 15 miles up the road, after the fight here led to mass protests and killings 2,000 miles away in their home province. Their tightly guarded new home and workshop is sealed off, and requests to visit inside and interview the Uighur men playing pool behind the gates after dark were refused by guards without explanation.
When asked if those inside were allowed to leave, a guard replied sternly, “No, they can’t go out.” About 10 locals said they haven’t seen the Uighurs outside the gates since they were moved here following the Shaoguan factory murders on June 26, but government officials say they can come and go. Onlookers are quickly shuffled away from the gates and police closely monitor every move.
On July 10, officials from Shaoguan and Xinjiang local governments held a press conference to reveal new details of their investigation into the deadly factory fight, and to discuss the overall situation. They produced two Uighur workers from the toy factory to answer a few questions about their current situation, but many details remain unclear.
The young Uighur man and woman said their new living quarters are safe, but they did not discuss how tightly their movement is controlled. The press conference was time-limited, and the workers, identified only by their Chinese names, were quickly shuffled away when it ended.
“I did feel scared right after the incident happened, but now we feel so confident and full of hope for our life and work,” said the woman, Xiare Kezhi. “Now we have already gone back to work and we all live with peace of mind.”
They do, however, know about the violence that occurred in Urumqi on July 5, when a reported 156 people were killed after locals took to the streets to protest the Shaoguan murders and lack of arrests. The two workers are from Kashgar, where foreign journalists were ordered to leave on Friday.
“We have heard about what’s happening in Urumqi; we watch TV news and people are talking about it,” said the Uighur woman. “We wonder why people connected the two things. We think that what happened here has nothing to do with the Urumqi incident.”
What precisely happened at the massive Shaoguan toy factory on June 26 remains clouded by rampant rumors and anxiety. City officials at the press conference said the fight broke out after a Han woman was harassed and groped by a group of Uighur men when she returned to her dorm from work late on June 25. She reported the incident and the men refused to cooperate with an investigation, said city government spokesman Wang Qingxi, so the fight escalated into a deadly brawl that killed two Uighur men and left 100 people injured.
News of the incident, some of which was apparently exaggerated, quickly spread across the internet. Uighur rights groups globally condemned what happened and a lack of police action. Earlier this week, officials announced they had arrested 15 people in Shaoguan, including three Uighurs, in connection with the factory brawl. Other reports said several people were detained for spreading rumors.
As Xinjiang braces for a crackdown, locals in Shaoguan are full of opinions about Uighurs, race and what really happened here.
“Things are back to normal in the factory because there are no people from Xinjiang there anymore,” said Yang Lin, a 40-year-old factory worker from central China. “We were very surprised by everything that happened, but these were people who wanted to steal things.”
“These people from Xinjiang are just wild,” said another worker who refused to give his name, but who said he believed the rumors that the men raped Han women shortly after arriving at the factory in May.
Those initial rumors, skewering six Uighurs for raping two Han women (a charge later denounced by police), started circulating online in early June. But workers said tension arose shortly after the Uighurs arrived. Hubei native Li Wenlin said there was constant arguing between the Han and Uighur men for weeks, but he stayed out of it.
“I’m an easy person to get along with and I thought the Uighurs were fine,” said Li, who said police in the factory warned against talking about the incident.
Despite the tension and violence, officials said plans to bring several hundred more Uighur workers to the area will proceed. The future for those holed up in the gated toy factory appears unknown.
Read more about the conflict: