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Behind the Xinjiang riots

GlobalPost's Kathleen McLaughlin explains how forced labor, culture clashes and the financial crisis contributed to the violence in Xinjiang.


(photo by Sharron Lovell/GlobalPost)



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[Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of the Correspondent Call with Kathleen McLaughlin.]

Passport: Good afternoon everybody, this is David Case calling from the Passport newsroom in Boston. The topic of today’s call is the unrest between the Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese in China. On July 5, a brawl at Urumqi’s main bazaar left 184 people dead. It’s been called China’s worst violence since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the worst unrest in Xinjiang province since the People’s Liberation Army took control in 1949. It was an event that perhaps couldn’t have happened a decade ago. It was kicked off by a toy factory brawl between migrant workers and propagated over the Internet. President Hu Jintao was so concerned about the violence that he cut short his participation in the recent G8 meeting in Italy. The incident, however, was not isolated. Anger runs high between Uighurs and Han Chinese and riots have broken out in the past. Also, Xinjiang Province borders Tibet, the site of widespread bloody uprisings just last year. These events stand in stark contrast to the harmonious society the government portrayed at last year’s Olympics. They raise the question, “does the biggest threat to China’s economic miracle come from within?”


Joining us from Beijing is GlobalPost’s Kathleen McLaughlin. Kathleen has spent the better part of the past ten years reporting from China. She has written for the Far East Review, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. She just returned from a reporting trip to Guangdong Province where she investigated the roots of the Uighur unrest and broke news on several big stories.


As usual, I have a few announcements. First, remember that the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport’s website. Regarding the format, I will lead a Q and A for about 20 minutes, afterwards we will open the lines to questions. The call will end after about 30 minutes. All of your phones are now muted. Prior to the audience question period, I will explain later how to un-mute your phones.


Ok, let’s get started. Kathleen, you’ve been on the front lines covering this story. To make sure we’re all on the same page, can you take us through a timeline of what happened? There were allegations, apparently unfounded, that Uighurs working in a toy factory had raped Han women.


McLaughlin: Sure. The problem, this particular incident, started in mid-June when someone, probably more than one person, posted online some allegations that six Uighur men had raped two different Han women. There were no arrests, the police say there were no formal complaints filed over the rape. And the situation kind of festered for a couple of weeks. And then police are saying that on June 25, the problem escalated into this huge brawl that broke out. And the current police accounting is, and its actually changed a couple of times, the latest accounting is that late on the night of the 25th, a Han woman was returning to her dormitory from her work at the factory and she bumped into a group of Uighur men who frightened her, who maybe started teasing her a little bit, she screamed, and the police say a bunch of Han men tried to come to her rescue and that’s when the fight broke out. The details are still kind of unclear at this point. People at the toy factory, Han people at the toy factory are saying that they believe there was a rape, we talked to a lot of people who say there was a rape, that it was covered up by the police because the police didn’t want to start a fight between the Han and the Uighurs, which is kind of ironic because that’s what it turned into.


There’s also a lot of dispute about what exactly happened that night. There were videos and accusations posted all across the Internet in the days following the fight. So, what we know is that at least two Uighurs were killed, at least 100 people were injured. There was a lot of discontent among the Uighur community, both inside China and outside of China that no one was arrested in the two murders. There were also accusations that more people were killed and that it was an unprovoked attack on the two Uighurs while they were sleeping. So these accusations spiraled out over the Internet, there were no arrests at the factory and it turned into what was a planned, non-violent, the organizers say it was non-violent, in Urumqi, which is the capital of Xinjiang on July 5. Now, what we don’t know is what exactly happened in Urumqi on July 5 that took the protest from people marching in the street to a riot where almost 100 people were killed. So there are a lot of facts that are unknown at this point. The Chinese government has been pretty open with foreign media covering the situation in Urumqi. They’re not very open at the toy factory, we were not allowed to do any independent interviews with the Uighurs who work there, they’re all locked away in another factory compound, very closed off. The Han factory workers are fairly free to talk about it, although they’ve been warned not to spread rumors. The situation right now in Guangdong is lots of rumors, nobody really knows exactly what the truth is.


Passport: Ok, now unpack this for us a bit, geographically. First let’s take a look at Xinjiang. Its an enormous place, three times the size of France, in western China. To Beijing, Xinjiang is important for its rich oil reserves. What is it like there on the street? You’ve done some reporting trips there in the past. What is it like for the Uighurs and the Han? How are they treated by the government and by society?


McLaughlin: Right. Well, if you go to the capital of Urumqi, it looks like any other large Chinese city: wide boulevards, white tile buildings. It’s not really different from the rest of China. If you go into the countryside, into cities like Kashgar and places like that, its very different. It doesn’t feel like China. It feels like a different country entirely. There is a lot of disagreement over how Uighurs are treated. Uighurs and Uighur activists will tell you that they’re treated like second-class citizens in their own land. Han and the Chinese government will argue that they are increasing the economic prosperity of the province and with that, they’re raising everyone’s income and standards of living. And with that, one of the main disputes, of course, comes over religion and the freedom of the Uighurs to practice their religion as they wish and they don’t have all the freedoms that they want on that. So there is a lot of underlying tension. I think I read that the province is now forty percent Han. They’re not completely integrated. And just culturally, language-wise, the Uighurs speak a completely different language, they live, on a daily basis, kind of separately.


Passport: Is there outright animosity between the government and Islam akin to the Falun Gong animosity?


McLaughlin: I wouldn’t say that. I would say there is tension. The Falun Gong situation was a lot different because the Falun Gong had so many million members join in such a short period of time that they were considered, the group, the religion, was considered a threat to the communist party. A lot of top party members had joined Falun Gong and party central leadership was worried that Falun Gong was posing a threat to the party as the main ideology in China. I don’t think there is any concern among the Chinese government that Islam is ever going to become a threat like that. The Uighurs aren’t converting people to Islam. But the Uighurs and sort of ongoing smaller separatist movements from the outside and within Xinjiang are seen as a threat. I wouldn’t say its outright animosity between the government and Islam. The larger group of Chinese Uighurs are actually the Hui people who are pretty indistinguishable from Han Chinese – they’re Muslim. But I think there are a million more Hui than there are Uighurs.  And they Hui have tensions, of course, with the government. Not as high a level of tensions and probably because Xinjiang was considered the Uighurs land to begin with and the Hui don’t have that kind of tie to the land and that kind of tie to a separate area.


Passport: So what is it that the Uighurs want then? Do they want respect for their tradition? Do they want improvements in their quality of life? And how strong is their drive for independence?


McLaughlin: I would say what they want is both of the things you mentioned. They want to be able to practice their religion. They also want to be able to earn a living. A lot of what’s happening, as Josh Chin wrote the other day, is purely economic. The situation is similar to what escalated into the riots in Tibet last year. You know, regular people, regular Uighur people feeling like they’re not prospering the way that Han are in their region. In their kind of territory…. I’m sorry, what was the second question?


Passport: How strong is their drive for independence?


McLaughlin: That’s really hard to say. You won’t get that on the street in Xinjiang. It’s a very sensitive topic and people will not talk openly about it. When you hear about Uighur independence or independence for Xinjiang, its typically coming from outside of China. So its difficult to assess who believes in it Xinjiang. My experience there has been that I feel that people there just want to live their lives. They want to be able to practice their religion, they want to be able to make a living. Ordinary people are not concerned with separating as much as they are with getting by and having some respect.


Passport: Ok, you mentioned Tibet a little bit earlier. How is the situation with the riots in Urumqi compared to the riots in Tibet? Are they… is the government handling the aftermath of that the same way?


McLaughlin: Actually, there’s a huge different in the way that they’ve handled openness about the situation. When the riots in Tibet happened, the government locked down and wouldn’t allow anyone, tourists, foreign journalists, and then that was foreign and Chinese tourists. Everyone was locked out of Tibet. So nobody really knew what was happening there. And you got a lot of rumors about mass arrests of Tibetans, and possibly executions, but no one got on the ground to see what was happening. Now in Xinjiang, the government hasn’t said this, but they seem to have made a very different, very conscious decision to allow people in, to see exactly what happened, to talk to the locals about what happened. You know, to see it with their own eyes and have some independent verification and maybe get a little more credibility to the reports of what happened there. Now, I should add that that’s only true in Urumqi. The government has been ejecting foreign correspondents from Kashgar, which is a more sensitive area for a number of reasons, one of them being that is the town where the migrant workers were sent to the toy factory in Guangdong province. But they are allowing people to come in and talk to people about what happened during the riots, after, interview people. Pretty free and open access, like we haven’t seen in a situation like this, particularly didn’t see it in Tibet and still haven’t seen it in Tibet.


Passport: That’s interesting. It’s interesting to see how the Chinese government is evolving in these crises from Tibet, the Szechwan earthquake and so forth. Let’s talk about Guangdong, where you just returned from. This is primarily a Han area, just north of Hong Kong. It’s the world’s workshop. It’s the engine of China’s economic miracle. What exactly are the Uighurs doing there, thousands of miles from home?


McLaughlin: Well, about a year and a half ago, two years ago, China’s factories started to face a labor shortage for a number of reasons. For ten years previous to that, or even longer, they had been able to attract an unending flow of migrant workers from farms across China. These were people who couldn’t make a great living farming and they heard about a great opportunity in the Pearl River Delta and they made their way there to go to work in the factories. Now a couple of things happened. First of all, inflation. The price of everything started increasing, the value of the RMB went down, and there was a new labor law implemented in China that increased costs on all businesses. As a result of that, companies couldn’t pay as high of salaries. A lot of workers decided, these are mainly Han workers that I’m talking about, decided that it actually made more sense to stay home and that factory work wasn’t going to be the great opportunity they all thought it would. So the factories started facing labor shortages. During that time, the Chinese government sort of accelerated a policy to transfer, the call it transferring out, surplus labor. And one of the places affected by that is Xinjiang. So they’re looking to gather workers from Xinjiang and move them to the factories in Guangdong province that need workers. Now there’s a lot of controversy over this policy, because there have been continuing, repeated accusations that young women in particular, but also young men, I talked to a young man who said he was coerced, have been economically coerced into going. So the government signs a contract with the factory to provide them with 2,000 workers.  And then the government goes to sort of extraordinary means to get these workers.


Some of the stories include threatening their families with economic sanctions if they don’t send their child to the factory, and other things like that. So, before this policy, you didn’t see Uighur workers flooding the factories in Guangdong. But you see, I was in Guangdong last year and saw a lot of Uighurs working in show factories there and I was quite surprised. Last year it was very common. What I saw when I was down there before was a lot of Uighurs are leaving or being sent home now and it seems to have something to do, in part, with this policy and how controversial it’s become. The factory I visited on this trip where there are 300 Uighurs working, is a Nike factory. Nike was quoted in a Radio Free Asia story about their concerns with this policy and I think it’s an issue that Nike and other big multinationals don’t want to get involved in. They don’t want to have that on their plate. So this factory, this particular factory, had 1,200 Uighurs workers last year and there’s only 300 left and those people are leaving at the end of this month. So you’re seeing a real exodus back to Xinjiang. Now, the authorities in Xinjiang say, “no, the labor policy is continuing, we’re planning to send more workers to the toy factory.” I’m not seeing it. I don’t know if the policy is going to continue. We’ll have to wait and see.


Passport: Wow, you bring up a lot of issues there. ­ 


McLaughlin: (Laughs) Sorry!


Passport: No, that’s great. But this does have roots in the economic crisis and could have implications for China’s labor shortage. Given that there’s so many new people from far-flung places in China and Guangdong, I’m assuming that it’s not just Uighurs from Xinjiang. Can we expect more tensions in Guangdong and the factory parts of China?


McLaughlin: You know, I think this situation, Uighurs and Hans together is very particular, very special. It’s not something you see. For example, you get workers from, oh, I don’t know, Fujian Province or somewhere in the middle of China, Szechwan Province, they’ve been doing this for years and years and years. Its usually young workers coming into these factories. They tend to blend together pretty well. In the big factories, it’s almost like a college campus atmosphere. You know, you’ve got eighteen and nineteen-year-old kids, just off the farm for the first time, mixed in with ten thousand other people their age, and its mostly, often times, in most of the factories I’ve seen, and I’ve visited a lot of factories down there, have a pretty lively, kind of fun atmosphere. This seems particular to the Uighur and Han and being put together with all of their differences, especially language, because they, for one thing can’t communicate because most of the Uighur coming from this rural part of Kashgar don’t speak Chinese. And then just down to basic things. Like Chinese people eat pork. That’s the number one meat in China.


And of course, the Uighurs don’t eat pork, so you just have these very basic differences and with most of the factory workers in China, you don’t have those differences. You know they have a common language, common interests, and it a more lively, kind of fun, atmosphere. Well, you do see, I should add, you do see problems at factories, protests, but they tend to be directed at management over unpaid wages and things like that, not directed at other workers.


Passport: Is there potential for unrest in other parts of China that you see right now?


McLaughlin: Yes, all over China. There was a report I think I mentioned. I believe in 2006 from the Chinese government the were having, they call them “mass incidents” and that’s when a group of people gathers and protests and marches, unauthorized, of course. They were having three a day in 2006. I believe that most were related to environmental issues. Industrial pollution, things like that that were making people sick and injuring people. This is happening all over China. What you don’t see so much of is the ethnic clashes, that’s more rare. And it seems to be, and we’ve seen it in Tibet and we’ve seen it in Xinjiang, which are unusual places because they’re both seen as sort of “homeland” for a certain ethnicity. The other incidents that are coming out are more labor related, related to corruption, issues like that.


Passport: You witnessed a labor shortage. Do you have members of other minority groups being arrested or coerced to work in Chinese factories? Arrested and sent as coerced laborers?


McLaughlin: I have not heard of it affecting other ethnic groups. I’ve not heard that. I know there’s coerced labor. A lot of prisoners are sent to coal mines. And coal mining is the most dangerous job in China. And so of course, no one wants to do it, so oftentimes, they round up prison inmates to go do that. But I have not heard about other ethnic groups – that’s not to say its not happening. There are a lot of things we don’t know about, but I haven’t heard about it.


Passport: And what do the Han Chinese in the eastern part of the country think about the crisis?


McLaughlin: It is a little difficult to say. There is a building momentum, I think that there’s pretty widespread belief that the protests were probably organized outside of China. Or organized by people with a political agenda. I did talk to outside the factories, not factory workers, when I was in Guangdong, who said, “You know, this is someone else’s political agenda. We’re not involved in this, we’re just regular people, we’re fine with the Uighurs.” So I think there’s that kind of widespread perception that it’s a higher political agenda from somewhere else, but there haven’t been any accusations of where its coming from that have stuck with the Chinese people and the rest of China.


Passport: Ok, a couple of other questions before I open it up to member questions.


On Tuesday, Al Qaeda made threats to target Chinese workers in Africa. Do you get a sense of how worried China is about that threat?


McLaughlin: I think they’re very worried because they issued a statement calling for “understanding” from the Islamic community around the world. Calling on, I believe the ministry of foreign affairs issued the statement, and I believe it was worded to say, “We call on our Islamic brothers and sisters around the world to offer us their understanding in this crisis and how we handled it.” And it was a very humble statement, which you rarely see from the central Chinese government. Usually when they’re talking about, what they call their internal affairs, they’re not particularly humble, they’re a little more strident. And this statement had a very different tone to it. So I think they’re quite worried. Just my own little speculation, just the wording of that statement, it felt like it.


Passport: Another interesting approach that they took, they kind of used the Dalai Lama card in Xinjiang. They blamed the riots on Rabia Kader, a sixty-two-year-old entrepreneur who now lives in Washington DC. Do Chinese people believe that she is responsible?


McLaughlin: I don’t think they know who she is. The Dalai Lama has very widespread name recognition in China, everyone knows who he is, kids learn about him from the time they’re young, growing up, when they learn about Tibet, they learn about him, they know his name. And this woman, I really don’t think that people know who she is. So I think they’re having a difficult time make that stick, that it was her that organized things because most everyday Chinese don’t know who she is. It was a pretty easy thing for them to do with the Dalai Lama in a lot of ways because everyone knew who he was, they already had maybe a slightly negative opinion about him, but this is a tough sell because she’s kind of an unknown.


Passport: Perhaps, on the contrary, they’ve now made her very well known.


McLaughlin: (Laughs) Possibly.


Passport: Ok, at this point, I’d like to open up the call for questions.


Caller 1: Yeah, this is David Reedle. A question about these workers getting sent back from their factory jobs to their home provinces. It seems that that will exacerbate economic tensions because they won’t have any way to make a livelihood back at home. Is there a concern that they’re exporting this uncertainty and unrest around the rest of the country?


McLaughlin: Well, I think there must be a concern. There’s a particular concern about the 800 Uighurs who were working in that toy factory. And no one has really addressed it, but I’m certain there’s a concern because they’re not letting them out. They’re not letting them talk to anyone, they’re not letting them go anywhere. So they’re obviously concerned about them for political reasons. I think you’re right, I think there could be some problems. I spoke with a young Uighur worker at the Nike factory who was very reluctant about leaving because he knew that he wasn’t going to have a job when he got back to Kashgar. And this was kind of his big shot, you know? He was making great money, on a relative scale, I’m sure he was probably making more than his parents ever had. And he was not happy about having to go home, so I think you’re on to something there. The problem is, the government isn’t really talking about sending them back yet, they’re not really being open about that, so it’s difficult to get an accurate assessment.


Passport: That seems like another potential flash point. When these people are released from the factory and arrive back in Urumqi or Kashgar. David, do you have another question?


Caller 1: Yeah, just a sort of more general question, not really related to this. But, how does Guangdong feel? We hear so much about the exports being down. What’s the feeling on the street there?


McLaughlin: You mean, related to business generally and economics generally?


Caller 1: Yes, that’s right.


McLaughlin: It’s not the same place it was three years ago, that’s for sure. I mean, three, four, five years ago, Guangdong was bustling and lively and optimistic and it’s definitely tamped down the enthusiasm. A lot of workers have left. I think the latest Chinese government figure was 25 million migrant workers were without jobs. And those aren’t all factory workers, but I would say the enthusiasm that was in Guangdong a couple of years ago is definitely tamped down now.


Caller 1: Just finally, on the specifics, of the Turkish exchange, do you think there’s anything behind that, politically?


McLaughlin: Which exchange do you mean? The Turkish statement response?


Caller 1: Yeah, Erdogan had his statement and the Chinese responded to it? Asked him to retract it, kind of.


McLaughlin: Yeah, you know, I really don’t know. I mean, I’d love someone in Turkey to be able to tell us what’s going on there, but its difficult to say coming from within China because this government is so closed. So I’m not sure. I don’t think I have a good answer for that one.


Caller 1: Can you go into detail about how the Internet is being used and what vehicles are being used to spread this information? Any particular sites or services?


McLaughlin: Twitter and basically the Chinese mirror site, its kind of a knock off called Fanfou, those are big vehicles to spread the information. Also, the number one thing that I heard that spread this particular issue is called QQ. Are you familiar with QQ? It’s a Chinese instant messaging service and I don’t believe QQ has been shut down, but at this point, Twitter, Fanfou, have been taken down, Picasa, the Google photo site is down, Facebook is down… they’ve pulled down a number of websites that were being used, in part, to spread the information, but I have heard more about QQ than anything else, and I think its still up and running. With QQ they can monitor pretty easily and wipe information from groups that are posted there.


Passport: So, people are using QQ, they have access to that within the factories and they’re using that to communicate back with their families?


McLaughlin: Most of factory towns, you’ll have the factories, which are big compounds under the village where they live and work, and then on the outside of town, they’ll have internet cafes everywhere. And these things are jammed every night. The workers go out and get online every night. And that’s where these rumors were posted from these Internet cafes. You go into this internet café outside of where the toy factory is, now there are warning signs on all the computers saying, “don’t post rumors on the Internet.” So they’re pretty worried about more rumors, I guess, being posted.


Passport: Do we have questions from any other members? Ok, I have one last question to wrap it up. In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, it was fashionable to debate whether China was next in terms of falling apart. Things have changed since then and now it’s difficult to image China faltering at all. On the other hand, there are major fault lines between East and West in China, between the rich and the poor and the urban and the rural. How do you see these trends developing over the next ten years?


McLaughlin: I think that’s the million-dollar question about China. China has redefined holding together fault lines that are ready to rupture. I the past twenty years, since Tiananmen, they have come up with a new model to deal with situations like this. And so far it’s working, but they are always putting out fires. There are constant fires going on, that’s how they’re working on it. Honestly, this is a terrible answer, but I just don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s why I’m here. I’m waiting to see.


Passport: Well, we’ll be looking forward to continuing to read your great coverage, Kathleen. I want to wish Kathleen a happy birthday, it was her birthday on July 16 and also thank her for staying up until one o’clock in the morning to take this call for us.


McLaughlin: Thank you, David.


Passport: Thanks to all the members, and we’ll talk to you very soon.