HUIZHOU, China — Blind luck sent hundreds of Muslim Uighurs to a factory here last year to make Nike shoes, instead of five hours north, where their friends and neighbors from the same rural patch of China’s far northwest went to make toys.
Though they aren’t there, the Shaoguan toy factory is heavy on the minds of Uighurs here, as they wait for news of loved ones and friends who have had little contact with the outside since the June 26 toy factory brawl and murder of Uighurs in their factory dorms — the incident that helped ignite mass protests and 184 deaths in Xinjiang province July 5.
In Huizhou, 24-year-old Kubah agonizes over the fate of his girlfriend, who is locked away 200 miles from him in a heavily guarded old factory outside Shaoguan, inside a compound where at least 700 Uighur workers were sent after the deadly fight. He and his girlfriend originally came to Huizhou together to work in the Nike factory, but she was transferred to Shaoguan a few months ago.
When his contract ends this month, Kubah will return to Xinjiang, reluctantly leaving behind the woman he wants to marry. She is not allowed to leave the compound near Shaoguan and is rarely allowed to call.
“I only came here because of my girlfriend. I can’t stay here now,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen.”
When they arrived by the hundreds in Guangdong province last year, many young Uighurs were full of hope and promise, thrilled to see a side of China so geographically and culturally far from their home in the distant northwest. Many others, like Kubah, never wanted to be here but tried to make the best of things.
The toy factory murders changed everything for Kubah and his girlfriend. In the days following, his girlfriend was rounded up and moved. He has only spoken to her twice since then and he does not know when he will see her again.
When their local government in Xinjiang province sent workers to southern Chinese factories over a year ago, more than 2,000 Uighurs from the same part of Kashgar went to Guangdong province. About 1,000 ended up at the Nike shoe factory in Huizhou, while about 800 more were dispatched to Shaoguan’s toy factory — both are massive compounds that employ thousands of mostly Han Chinese migrant workers.
In both spots, Han and Uighurs worked side-by-side, muddling through language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and sometimes having fun. In Shaoguan, something went horribly wrong, ending in a two-hour-long brawl that officials say killed two Uighurs and injured scores. Han workers accused Uighur men of rape; police dismissed the claims but said the fight broke out after Uighurs harassed a Han woman in the dorms.
According to their friends in Huizhou, the Uighurs in Shaoguan can’t talk about what happened and were rounded up soon after the murders, nearly two weeks before Xinjiang erupted. Most were asleep when the fight broke out late at night. They ran from their dorm rooms, leaving behind clothes, cell phones and most everything else. Their friends can’t reach them by phone now.
While officials say the Uighurs encamped in Shaoguan can come and go as they please, and that 56 have returned to Kashgar, friends in Huizhou are skeptical. Shaoguan locals said Uighurs never went outside the factory gates. As is often the case in China, where the free flow of information is suppressed, rumors are rampant.
“We don’t know what happened there,” Kubah said. “My girlfriend is afraid to say too much.”
There’s been a mass exodus of Uighurs from the shoe factory in recent months, but most blame basic problems like a lack of halal food and southern China’s intense heat. It’s worth noting, however, that the factory denied charges earlier this year that some Uighur workers were underage and forced to work.
Workers say a year ago, the shoe factory had 1,200 Uighur employees. As their yearlong contracts ended, three-quarters returned to Kashgar. About 300 remain, along with a few Xinjiang-style restaurants near the factory gates. All will depart August 1 when the last round of contracts expires.
Another Uighur worker, Kadeh, 20, is saddened by recent events. Next month, he’ll leave behind his first glimpse of the larger world to return to his landlocked home.
“We took a trip to the sea when we arrived and it was beautiful. I’d never seen it before,” he said wistfully.
If he could, Kadeh would stay in Huizhou, where he learned to speak Chinese, made a few Han friends and danced with Uighurs and Han at factory parties every weekend. He misses his family, but longs for the excitement of those first months. While the two ethnic groups seem to coexist peacefully here, massive culture and religion gaps remain. Life would be impossible for a young Uighur alone.
“I would like to stay here and work, but everyone else is leaving,” Kadeh said.
Meanwhile, Kubah’s pending departure from Huizhou could not be more bittersweet. He fears for his safety and wants desperately to go home. But he frets about leaving his girlfriend behind, constantly wondering about her safety, questioning if and when she might be released.
Asked what will happen next, he replied: “God knows.”
(The Uighur men in this story are quoted using only their first names to protect their identities.)
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