Aksu: Outside a mosque in China`s restive west, a government-appointed Muslim cleric was dodging a foreign reporter`s question about why young men of the Uighur ethnic minority don`t have beards when one such youth interrupted.
"Why don`t you just tell them the truth?" he shouted to the cleric under the nervous gaze of several police officers who had been tailing the reporters all day in the oasis city of Aksu.
"It`s because the government doesn`t allow beards." A plainclothes Uighur policeman swiftly rebuked the young man. "Be careful what you say," he warned.
The tense exchange provided a fleeting glimpse of both the extremes of China`s restrictions on minority Uighurs (pronounced WEE`-gurs) and the resentment that simmers beneath the surface in their homeland.
Such a mood pervades Xinjiang`s south, a vast, mainly rural region that`s become a key battleground in the ruling Communist Party`s struggle to contain escalating ethnic violence that has killed at least a few hundred people over the past 18 months.
The personal matter of facial hair has taken on heavy political overtones in the Uighur heartland.
Also proscribed are certain types of women`s headscarves, veils and "jilbabs," loose, full-length garments worn in public.
Such restrictions are not new but their enforcement has intensified this year in the wake of attacks Beijing has blamed on religious extremists.
In a recent sweep of Urumqi, the region`s capital, authorities last week said they seized 1,265 hijab-type headscarves, 259 jilbabs and even clothes printed with Islamic star-and-crescent symbols.
The prohibitions on Islamic attire and beards have attracted widespread criticism, with many experts saying such repression angers ordinary Uighurs and risks radicalising them.
"It`s a self-fulfilling prophecy, it`s self-perpetuating. The more they crack down on it, the more people re-Islamize. This is a pattern we see all over the world," said Joanne Smith Finley, an expert on Uighurs at Britain`s Newcastle University.
"The Chinese state has created a growing terrorist threat where previously there was none. It has stimulated an Islamic renewal where there wouldn`t necessarily have been one."
A major thrust of the yearlong crackdown on terrorism has been a campaign against religious extremism, with arrests of hundreds of people for watching videos apparently hailing terrorism or extremist ideology.