The Chinese government has held an extraordinary press conference in Canberra, trotting out members of a Muslim ethnic minority to deny they had been persecuted by the communist nation.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra invited Australian journalists to the meeting on Wednesday to defend Beijing’s human rights record in Xinjiang Province, where human rights groups believe more than a million Muslim Uyghurs have been sent to internment camps.
But in a surreal press conference, Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye insisted Uighurs were not subjected to oppression in Xinjiang.
China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, said the point of the press conference was to combat “disinformation” about Xinjiang and the Uighurs.
“Over some time, there has been quite some distorted coverage about Xinjiang in certain Western media,” Mr Cheng said.
“Those reports are basically based on disinformation or misinformation.
“Today’s press conference is to help you Australian journalists to have a better understanding of the actual situation in Xinjiang.”
Journalists were shown a six-minute propaganda video – entitled “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land” – depicting the region as one of “economic development, social stability, livelihood improvement and religious harmony”.
The video suggested the Communist Party of China had “transformed” Xinjiang “into a land of life, a land of thriving vitality”.
China has long insisted the camps are designed to quell a growing separatist movement in the region, driven by the Uighur population.
The video claimed 56 ethnic groups had “worked together to develop a vast magnificent part of the motherland”.
“The Chinese government has placed high on its agenda the inheritance, protection and development of the excellent traditional ethnic cultures of Xinjiang,” it said.
Liberal senator Eric Abetz, a long-term critic of Beijing, blasted the embassy’s move.
“This video is a sickening display of propaganda that attempts to dismiss the egregious human rights abuses occurring in Xinjiang against the Uighur people,” he said.
“Though the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) tries to hide and obfuscate information from Xinjiang and the human rights abuses committed there, increasing evidence reveals the CCP’s intention to commit genocide against the Uyghur people.”
Mr Abetz said the truth of what was under way in Xinjiang was “slowly revealing itself”, with various international reports emerging depicting “ample evidence” of human rights abuses.
Australian Uighur Tangritagh Women’s Association president Ramila Chanisheff said the number of people to had passed through the camps could range between 5 and 8 million, with more than 380 sites across Xinjiang.
She said the press conference was a sign of “desperation” from Beijing, which was “very much afraid” of the growing international scrutiny about the province.
“I think what we can see is that they’re desperate, they’re trying every way to cover up the reality of the actual statistics and the pure evidence that’s coming out of Xinjiang,” she told Sky News.
“The world is realising what’s happening out there, they’re seeing it for what it is. I think China is very much afraid at the moment.”
Ms Chanisheff said China’s economic and international influence meant it would likely become more vocal as it defended its record in Xinjiang.
Canada’s parliament in February declared a genocide was under way in the region, while UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused China of a “highly disturbing program of oppression” last month.
“This is one of the worst human rights crises of our time and I believe the evidence is clear, as it is sobering,” he said.
Despite deteriorating relations between Canberra and Beijing over the past year, Australia has so far resisted following suit.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne last month indicated Australia would not declare a genocide in Xinjiang.
“We have a slightly different approach to that turn of phrase, and I don’t mean this in a pedantic or semantic way,” she said.
But Ms Payne called on China to allow the UN high commissioner for human rights to have access to the region.
In September, more than 300 civil society groups from more than 60 countries urged the United Nations to create an independent mechanism to address Beijing’s human rights violations.
“China’s disdain for human rights no longer affects only its citizens – its support for dictators and efforts to rewrite international standards are making the work of defending human rights harder than ever,” Sarah Brooks of the International Service for Human Rights said.