Posted on December 31, 2004

Ethnic Tensions Smolder in China

Jehangir Pocha, In These Times, Dec. 28

The silence in this dusty brick-making town seems idyllic. But it’s really the calm after a storm — a storm that residents fear will soon return.

“Everyone here’s gone mad. . . people who used to live together now want to kill each other,” says a local restaurant owner who would give his name only as Mr. Ma. “I’m worried that when the police leave the fighting will start again.”

On October 28, this small village of about 1500 Han Chinese and 500 Hui Muslims in China’s central Henan province exploded into violence after a minor altercation between members of the two communities.

Little has been reported on the flare-up. The government is determined to suppress news of the riot because “it wants to preserve the image that all minorities live happily in China,” says Ma. While more than 90 percent of China is Han, the country has more than 50 ethnic minorities, including different Muslim groups, Tibetans, Koreans and Mongolians.

A small spark

Ma, a Hui, said the violence broke out after a Hui man was attacked by Han locals. Han Chinese in the area say the man was beaten after he knocked down a Han girl with his vehicle and refused to pay compensation.

Fighting between the two communities raged for hours, Ma says, leaving more than 100 dead, more than 400 injured, and several houses and vehicles burned.

Word of the riot spread quickly in the region, threatening to draw thousands more into the frenzy, thanks to the cell phones and computers proliferating even in rural China.

“Thousands of [Han] people surrounded [Nanren village] with bulldozers and tractors and wanted to smash all the Hui houses,” says Zhujian Jun, 32, a carpenter in Zhongmou, a town about 20 miles south of Nanren.

In Ji Yuan, about 80 miles to the west, “thousands of Hui people were getting into trucks to go join the fight,” says Yuan Peng, a Hui man in Ji Yuan. Rumors also spread about a planeload of Huis flying in from the northern province of Ningxia, an officially designated Hui autonomous region, where about 2 million of China’s 8.2 million Hui live.

Local authorities moved quickly to quell the violence, but it was so ferocious that at least 15 policemen were killed before officials called in special paramilitary troops, sources say.