Chinese internet users have flooded government social media accounts this week with thousands of angry anti-Muslim comments after unverified videos surfaced online showing an apparent riot by members of a Muslim minority group in a northern city. The furious comments posted on the official microblog sites of a local police bureau, the Communist Youth League, and other accounts have centered on unconfirmed reports that dozens of Hui Muslims rioted at a highway toll station in the city of Tangshan after a cleric from their community was beaten or hurt in a scuffle. Calls to police and government offices at various districts in Tangshan city, where the riot allegedly occurred, rang unanswered Tuesday or were answered by officials who said they were not in charge of responding to media requests over the incident. The official Global Times newspaper said an official surnamed Zhao from the Guye district government in Tangshan confirmed that “someone was beaten” but provided no details.
The website of US government-funded Radio Free Asia reported that unrest occurred at the toll station Saturday night after the Muslim cleric was injured in a scuffle, and cited online posts as saying he had been beaten by a toll station worker after he tried to pass through a closed lane instead of waiting in a long line. Chinese internet users complained on social media about having their posts about the riot scrubbed off Chinese microblogs, while internet searches of the words “Muslim Tangshan,” ”Tangshan tollbooth” and other related terms were blocked by online censors. Two women who answered the phones at restaurants near the Kaiping district government office said they had heard about the unrest but had no details. Video clips posted on YouTube, which is outside the reach of Chinese censors, showed a group of men with white skull caps gathering at the office of the Kaiping district government and nighttime clashes between similarly dressed men and riot police. The videos could not immediately be verified.
According to official statistics, there are more than 20 million Muslims in China, mainly among Uighur, Hui and other ethnic minorities living around the country. China’s 10.6 million Hui – descendants of Muslim settlers and Chinese who converted to Islam – have long endured strained relations with the Han, who constitute more than 90 per cent of China’s 1.37 billion people.
However, violence involving Hui Muslims, who mostly live in northern China, has been relatively rare in recent years. In 2004, as many as 5,000 people reportedly fought with clubs and burned several houses during street fights in a central Chinese town between Hui and Han. The flood of comments highlights a recent surge in anti- Muslim sentiment online that experts fear could exacerbate simmering ethnic and religious tensions in the country.
The Global Times said the Chinese commentators see the authorities as being more lenient toward offenders who are from Muslim minorities. However, some Chinese Muslim minorities, particularly Uighurs who are native to the northwestern region of Xinjiang, complain of being targets of economic and social discrimination.