HOTAN, China — There was no sign of dissent in the bazaar, where men wove through the crowd on motorcycles with freshly butchered sheep draped behind them. But a Muslim merchant pinched his lips together with his fingers to show he couldn't talk freely.
"The Chinese are too bad, really bad," said Hama. He said that the Chinese had broken up a protest of about 200 people last month. He put his wrists together as if handcuffed, saying, "I can't say more or I'll get arrested."
As China grapples with protests in Tibet, it also faces unrest on its Central Asian frontier. Resentment against the Chinese has long been an issue in the traditionally Muslim western region, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia. Recent problems in Xinjiang came after nearly a month of anti-government riots and protests in Tibet and other provinces with sizable Tibetan populations.
Such clashes are growing as the Olympic Games approach, with the world's spotlight on China and its human rights record. However, the situation with the Muslim minority Uighurs is even more complicated because China worries about separatist sentiment.
China's Public Security Ministry said this month that it broke up a terror ring of 35 members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement — a militant group that calls for separation from China and is on the U.S. terror list — in Xinjiang in recent weeks suspected of plotting to kidnap athletes, foreign journalists and other visitors to the August Olympics.
Last month, Chinese officials accused the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of trying to crash a domestic flight from Xinjiang, though the details of the case remain sketchy.
Human rights groups say China exaggerates such threats so it can clamp down on the Uighurs and arrest dissidents.
The Chinese blame last month's protest in the jade-trading Silk Road town of Hotan on Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, a radical group that wants to create a worldwide Islamic state. But human rights groups and U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia said demonstrators were protesting against a ban on head scarves in the workplace and demanding political prisoners be freed.
Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami also has been banned in Russia and Central Asia, where it reportedly has a large following among the predominantly Muslim former Soviet republics. The Chinese have accused the group of handing out "reactionary" leaflets and calling for protests in Hotan and Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi.
About 9.4 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, making up almost half its population. They speak a Turkic language, follow their own customs and live on land that is bigger than Alaska, covering about a sixth of China's territory.
China has often used harsh repression to control them, and has imprisoned or killed Uighur nationalists. The government has also flooded the land it renamed Xinjiang, or "New Frontier," with soldiers and members of China's ethnic Han majority who control much of the economy, fueled by rich oil and natural gas reserves.
U.S. government criticism of Beijing's record of religious oppression in Xinjiang has helped give Uighurs a relatively positive image of America in contrast to the strong anti-American sentiment among some Muslims in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Despite big signs in Hotan urging the masses to "Create a peaceful Hotan," the animosity between Muslims and Han Chinese was palpable on a recent visit to the city of about 100,000.
A chirpy Chinese coffee shop waitress smiled as she rattled off sites travelers should see, but urged them to avoid the bazaar.
"Some Muslim separatists caused some trouble. It's terrible," said the waitress, who would only give her surname, Zheng, when discussing the sensitive issue.
The Chinese also say the Uighurs are ungrateful for all the government investment that has modernized the region. "They have no culture and they don't try to study and improve themselves," said a Han Chinese delivery driver who would only give his surname, Wang, because he said the government didn't want him to speak ill of the Uighurs. "Most businesses don't want to hire them. That's why they hire Han Chinese. Their religion, Islam, it's no good. It fills their heads with nonsense."
Most Uighurs practice a moderate form of Islam. The men wear ornate skullcaps; most women favor head scarves but rarely cover their faces.
The last major series of riots in Xinjiang happened a little more than a decade ago.
But there are occasional reports in China's state-run media of weapons busts or bombings that are difficult to confirm.