"Silk Road Gem and Jade Shop" the sign proudly reads. Centrally located just down the street from the main mosque in Khotan, a dusty oasis town in the vast Taklamakan desert in China's far southwest, the shop is a focal point for the Muslim Uighurs who make up the majority of the local population. But though it is mid-morning, its gates are secured with heavy steel padlocks. Pedestrians kept their distance, and warning notices from the Public Security Bureau pasted across the doors declare that the business has been closed indefinitely.
The store's owner, Mutallip Hajim, a successful Uighur jade trader well known for sponsoring religious education classes was arrested in January for unspecified crimes. On March 3, police announced that the 38-year old had died of a heart attack in prison. Mutallip was killed "because he was too powerful, too influential," claims a Uighur man in his 30s. "Any Uighur who gets to that kind of position will always be arrested." The man, who like many residents of Khotan is clearly anxious to avoid being seen talking with foreign journalists.
Police and other local authorities declined to talk about Mutallip, but his death marked the beginning of troubled times for a town that has become a locus of the problems plaguing the Chinese administration of the Uighur-dominated western region of Xinjiang. While repression in neighboring Tibet has generated global headlines recently, activist groups and rights advocates have long accused Beijing of similar discrimination and abuses in Xinjiang. And Beijing's fears of an angry backlash of the sort that has left scores dead in Tibet in recent weeks has prompted a tight clampdown on the restive Uighurs. Last week, Chinese authorities announced they had foiled a separatist plot to kidnap athletes at the Olympics, and made scores of other arrests. But the clampdown may be provoking the very backlash it aimed to preempt. Since Mutallip's death, say locals, Khotan and surrounding areas have been roiled by protests that are continuing despite hundreds of arrests.
Local farmers, jade hunters, shopkeepers, students and professionals interviewed by TIME complained of job discrimination and the curtailing of their language rights. Some expressed fears that the culture and way of life of the Uighurs a central Asian people ethnically much closer to Turkey than China is threatened by a steady influx into the region of Han Chinese, whose share of the population, according to official estimates, has grown from around 6% in 1949 to 40% today, although millions of undocumented immigrant workers make it far higher. Northern Xinjiang today has a Han majority, sparking similar ethnic tensions to those seen in Tibet.
Analysts fear that the combination of Han immigration and government repression fosters a potentially violent despair among the Uighurs, whose adherence to Islam has been used by Beijing to demonize them at home and abroad sijnce 9/11.
"It's a systematic Chinese policy to portray Uighurs as splittists and terrorists," says Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman who now heads the American Uighur Association and is the leader of an exile movement seeking greater rights for her roughly nine million compatriots who live in Xinjiang. Like Mutallip, Kadeer was once a rich businesswoman in Xinjiang but fell afoul of the authorities and served a six year jail sentence for revealing state secrets to foreigners. Two of her sons are still in prison in China. "It's a Chinese tool to have the Han feel a sense of animosity toward Uighurs," Kadeer says. "Look at it now! They have extracted all the natural resources and the oil. We're left in the darkness."
Beijing's security chiefs see a more sinister trend at work. On three occasions most recently on April 10 officials in the Chinese capital have announced that security forces foiled planned attacks by what they called Muslim separatists groups from the province. Details were scant, but the most recent announcement alleged that some 45 Uighurs in the provincial capital Urumqi had been arrested in raids that uncovered plans to kidnap athletes and others attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics. An earlier report alleged that a young Uighur woman had tried to smuggle a bomb aboard a commercial aircraft in an attempt to bring it down.
Xinjiang separatists in the past have carried out small bombings in the region and in Beijing in the 1990s, and a handful of Uighurs were detained by the U.S. at Guantanamo after being captured in Afghanistan. But while China likes to emphasize an al-Qaeda connection to militant separatism in Xinjiang, analysts are less sure of what to make of such claims. Whatever the truth about the alleged terror plots, resentment is growing in areas like Khotan. As violence erupted in Tibet, authorities here arrested large numbers of Uighur men, hoping to preempt similar protests. Instead, the detentions themselves became the focus of protests, according to locals, who claim that hundreds of veiled women demonstrated for independence during a weekly bazaar on March 23. Khotan residents say there have been smaller demonstrations since then, mostly in the countryside.
Despite the undercurrent of resentment, there's little sign of trouble on Khotan's streets, where commerce is brisk in everything from roast lamb and athletic shoes to hand-woven local carpets and the famous local white jade. But the almost exclusively Chinese traders in its business center are evasive when asked about ethnic tensions or the events of March 23, after which many of these shops stayed closed for days. One young woman from Sichuan province says it is getting dark outside and she must close her store because "we don't go out on the streets at night." In the the karaoke lounge of the nearby Wenzhou Hotel, businessman Wang Jianliang is giving a lengthy denunciation of the "spilitists," whom he dismisses as "just a small minority." Wang, who says he had been in Khotan five years, says residents should be grateful for the economic development of recent years. "When I came out here it was nothing. Now it's a big city." He turns to belt out a ballad in his native Fujian dialect. A fellow reveler, a 21-year-old who says he has only been in town a year, asks a visitor if he frightened by the rising racial tension. "No," comes the reply, "what's to be scared of?"
"They hate us," the 21-year-old says. "The Uighurs hate us Han." The one thing equally shared, today in Khotan, between Uighur and Han Chinese, is fear.