Mobs from both sides, armed with farmers' tools, spears and Molotov cocktails, transformed the once placid villages of Zhongmou county in China's central Henan province into an ethnic war zone more reminiscent of Gujarat or Aceh. Four days later, on Oct. 31, when order was finally restored by more than 10,000 People's Armed Police and other military personnel, 148 people were dead, according to local journalists who saw an internal document circulated among high-level bureaucrats in Henanmaking this China's worst ethnic strife in years. "In all my life and that of my ancestors, we've never experienced anything like this," says a Muslim surnamed Hai, who along with other villagers discovered a decapitated Hui corpse on Monday. "Our villages will never be the same," agrees a Han farmer surnamed Geng, who says two of his fellow Weitang residents were thrown alive into a fiery brick kiln by Hui marauders. "Now we will always live in fear."
China has quietly celebrated the peaceful coexistence of its 55 ethnic minorities and the majority Han. True, discontent simmers in the provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, where Buddhists and Muslims have clamored for independence, and various other Chinese minorities claim they are held back economically by the Han. But ethnic tensions in China seldom turn violent. Especially well assimilated is China's largest Muslim minority, the Hui, who number some 10 million and are scattered throughout the country. After centuries of intermarriage between Han and Muslim merchant families, the Hui, who first came to China in the 7th century, are largely indistinguishable physically from the Han, except for the occasional skullcap or veil. Unlike the Uighurs of Xinjiang, whose separatist cause has spooked Beijing, the Hui are not prevented from overt Muslim worship; many of Henan's Hui villages have two flourishing mosques.
Yet China has not been immune from the tensions that have roiled the world in the past three years. Many moderate Muslim Hui say they have been discriminated against because of their religionand there are some worries that marginalizing the Hui could radicalize them in the same way that previously apolitical Muslims have been radicalized elsewhere in the world. "The terrorists from the Middle East are the same race as the Hui," says Han farmer Geng (though they are not). "Their character is cruel and aggressive."
In the light of such sentiment, the Imam for the Nanren West Mosque, surnamed Li, says relations between the Hui and the Han have reached their lowest point in his lifetime. "Even though we have no connection with terrorists, the Han now have prejudices against us that come from negative international ideas about Muslims," he says. Five days into the martial law that was declared in Zhongmou county, only the Hui were still prevented from leaving their villages, even though the Han also participated in the violence. At roadblocks across the county, police scanned cars looking for people wearing Muslim headgear, and long-distance buses driven by Hui were turned away, says one Public Security Bureau official from nearby Kaifeng city, for fear that the Muslims would band together and attack the Han.
Beijing appears to be trying hard not to let ethnic turmoil metastasize. The Chinese press did not report news of the clashes until Monday evening, when a brief item was first released only on the English-language news wire of the official Xinhua News Agency. No mention was made that the conflict was between the Hui and the Han. And in contrast with the internal document circulated to Henan officials, the Xinhua article gave a death toll of only seven. The news black-out may have had as much to do with Beijing's fear of social disorder snowballing into more widespread unrest as with ending ethnic tensions. Just in the past week, protests by thousands of disenfranchised farmers and others have unsettled the provinces of Anhui, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan and Zhejiang. Referring to the recent spate of unrest, national Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang was quoted in the official media on Monday pleading for calm. After last week's ethnic strife, calm is precisely what China's leaders need.