The ethnic riots in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region has so far claimed 140 lives with 800-plus injured, according to official figures. In reality, those numbers could be much higher.
The majority Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, in China's far-flung northwest corner, have resented the hardline rule of the Chinese Communists and the growing influx of ethnic Han Chinese since the People's Liberation Army entered the area in 1949. The latest incident began as a group of Uighur students protested Chinese discrimination against ethnic minorities.
According to the South China Morning Post, the leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, the origins of the events that led to the protest may have been fanned by an internet hoax:
Provincial police yesterday detained a man accused of spreading false rumours of rape over the internet that sparked a deadly ethnic brawl at a Hong Kong-owned toy factory in the northern Guangdong city of Shaoguan at the weekend.
Xinhua reported that the former worker posted a message on a local website claiming, "Six Xinjiang boys raped two innocent girls" at the factory, which is owned by Early Light International (Holdings).
Police said the unfounded claim was behind the massive brawl on Friday night between a group of Han and Uygur workers from the northwestern Xinjiang region who had been recruited to the factory. Some 800 migrant workers were employed from Shufu county, under the jurisdiction of Kashgar.
The Xinjiang region may be even more volatile than Tibet, which has given authorities fits intermittently since Communist Chinese occupation began in 1951. But Chinese leadership won't hesitate to unleash a harsh reprisal in Xinjiang, as there is little international support for the Uighurs' plight. A number of central Asian nations, and Russia, view the Uighur Muslims as potential troublemakers in the region and an Islamic terrorist threat.
Recently, when the Obama administration released a handful of Uighur detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, it had a difficult time placing them because repatriating them back to China would have resulted in harsh treatment (if not death) for these individuals, considered separatist terrorists by Beijing.
The riot in Xinjiang may be short-lived, as Chinese authorities will have no qualms about shutting down media access and springing a bloody crackdown. Alim Seytoff, head of the Uighur American Association, told the Chinese-language World Journal that the authorities responded with 1,000-plus riot police as soon as the protest emerged and "we've been told, they began randomly shooting into the crowd. ... We don't know how many people actually died, but at least hundreds were injured."
He went on to refute the Chinese government's assertion that the riot was premeditated by expatriate Uighur organizations, calling it a "smokescreen."