10 July 2009
China’s worst riot in recent history that killed 156 this week in northwest Xinjiang, was sparked by a brawl between disgruntled workers in a toy factory many miles away in the southern export zone.
It was the kind of worker unrest that Chinese officials feared could spread from a factory to city streets during the recession. Analysts say there were signs that Uighur Muslim workers, an ethnic minority that complains it is marginalised in Xinjiang, were growing more frustrated during the recession.
“It’s a wake-up call for China,” Geoffrey Crothall, editor of the China Labour Bulletin, told HT. “Probably an insensitive factory management brought in ethnic minority workers without taking steps to integrate them with the Han Chinese.’’ The southern Guangdong export heartland has an estimated 1.5 million workers of ethnic minorities.
The mob that rioted in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi on Sunday had initially gathered to demand an inquiry into the June 26 fight between Han Chinese and Uighur Muslims workers, that left two dead. The brawl began after a worker spread a rumour that an Uighur man had assaulted a Han girl. Official media reported the 19-year-old Han girl had screamed, as she accidentally entered a dormitory for Uighur men. Her interview to Xinhua was headlined: Unintentional scream triggered Xinjiang riot’.
As migrant job losses during the recession topped 20 million this year, local Chinese governments stepped up efforts to placate workers. In China, mass protests are called ‘mass incidents’.
The official definition is unclear but some say a group of over five people in a demonstration is a mass incident. In 2005, there were 87,000 mass incidents in China. An unconfirmed estimate says the number hit 1,27,467 in 2008, including strikes by rural teachers and taxi drivers.