We may never know exactly what happened when an ethnically charged fight in a toy factory in southern China on June 26 left two Uighur factory workers dead and dozens more injured. We also may never know just why the protests in remote Xinjiang Province on July 5, sparked in part by the factory murders and subsequent police handling, seemed to suddenly turn violent, killing 156 people.
Clearly the facts are out there somewhere. But the Chinese government’s controls on its media and the general free flow of information have created a surge of a million different stories and rumours in both Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital and site of the protests, and Shaoguan, site of the murderous toy factory brawl.
In Shaoguan, few seem to believe the official line – partly because of an ingrained mistrust of the government-supervised media of China, but also because of what they saw themselves and heard from other witnesses.
Police now say it was rumours that started the whole mess, saying a man has confessed to posting an item online accusing Uighur men at the factory of raping Han women. The message circulated far and wide among the thousands of toy factory workers, many of whom apparently wanted revenge. But police now say the beatings began after Uighur men grabbed and harassed a Han girl returning to the factory dorms late on June 25.
The 700-plus remaining Uighur workers in Shaoguan, locked away in an old factory a few miles up the road from the main compound, surrounded by armed guards, aren’t saying a thing. Their phone access and contact with the outside is strictly limited and they apparently can’t leave the grounds of their new camp.
In a situation like this, where the facts – massive racially motivated problems between two of China’s ethnic groups – challenge the government’s notion of a ‘harmonious society’, the clampdown on information is swift and severe. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are now blocked in China, while Chinese language sites have been duly scrubbed of all but the official line. A similar reaction came after the Tibet protests last March, though unlike Tibet, Xinjiang has remained mostly open to foreign journalists.
But because there is no credible, formal accounting of exactly what happened in the toy factory or exactly what turned Urumqi’s protests violent, the government must resort to clamping down on information, locking journalists out of certain areas and shutting down access to websites where contradictory information is circulated.
‘The news isn’t true,’ said one young Uighur man who works in a Nike factory in Huizhou. He hails from the same hometown as the Uighurs in Shaoguan, and knows several of them.
He wouldn’t elaborate about what he knows, but he and others were adamant when asked if it was true, as the local government said last Friday, that 56 Uighurs had been sent home from the factory to their homes in Kasghar. Nobody, they insisted, has been allowed to go home.
A Han migrant worker from the same factory agreed on this issue of truth, saying the government wants to control all information from Shaoguan and Xinjiang because they’re afraid of what might happen next.
‘I don’t believe what I read,’ said Zhou Liyin, a Sichuan Province native.
Despite all the skepticism, if history is any guide, the Chinese government’s version of events – after much recitation and constant rejection of contradictions – will eventually become the truth for the greater public. But they may remember next time.