Uyghurs in Xinjiang were forced to become Muslim and have been an integral part of China for thousands of years, Beijing said in a new report, in an attempt to justify its controversial crackdown against the ethnic minority in the far-western region.
A white paper released on Sunday by China's State Council Information Office — the Government's propaganda arm — presents the ruling Communist Party's interpretation of history, claiming "Islam is neither an indigenous nor the sole belief system of the Uyghur people".
The report also said that Islam spread into Xinjiang by "the Arab Empire" and that the Turkic Uyghur people "endured slavery" at the hands of "the Turks".
"Conversion to Islam was not a voluntary choice made by the common people, but a result of religious wars and imposition by the ruling class," it said, declaring that the Government nevertheless respects "the Muslims' right to their beliefs".
More than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are thought to be detained in what the Communist Party calls vocational education centres, referred to by the UN as "re-education camps".
Those living outside the camps are also subject to mass surveillance, with Beijing declaring it wants to "Sinicise Islam" — a hardline policy increasingly referred to by observers as "cultural genocide" against the Turkic minority group.
"I don't think anybody outside China who follows what happens in Xinjiang is fooled by this white paper," Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, told the ABC.
James Leibold, a La Trobe University expert on Uyghurs and other Chinese ethnic minorities, said the white paper is a "classic case of China's ongoing information warfare."
"Like any piece of propaganda, it's filled with partial truths," he said.
But state-run English-language newspaper the Global Times applauded the report, claiming that with the paper, "kind-hearted people can distinguish between right and wrong."
The Uyghurs are a mostly Turkic-speaking minority who share more in common linguistically and culturally with Turks than they do with China's ethnic Han majority.
Historians believe parts of the Xinjiang region have been referred to as Turkestan since the medieval era.
According to China's white paper, however, the region has "long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory" and has never been East Turkestan — a term it claims is used only by separatists in their "clamour for independence".
"There were two pseudo-independent republics created in the early 20th century that did explicitly take on the name East Turkestan."
Beijing's report claims that "from the very beginning", Uyghur culture "reflected elements of Chinese culture" and was an integral part of Chinese civilisation.
"It's foolish to speak about the existence of a unified Chinese nation 5,000 or even 3,000 years ago to include what is today Xinjiang and the Uyghur people," Mr Leibold said, adding that claims about religious freedom in Xinjiang were "laughable".
"Xinjiang always upholds equality for all religions," the white paper said.
But the Communist Party's crackdowns against Muslims and other faith communities including Christians and the Falun Gong are well documented.
A report from Amnesty International in 2018 claimed that public expressions of faith in Xinjiang were now deemed "extremist" by authorities, including growing a beard, praying or fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
"We have seen many ways in which Uyghur identity has been suppressed in recent years," Ms Pearson said, noting that China has also banned names deemed too Islamic.
Australia has expressed criticism of China's treatment of Uyghurs, recently joining 21 other countries at the UN Human Rights Council including the UK, Canada and Germany in calling upon China to end its detention of ethnic Uyghurs.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to China's treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang as "one of the worst human rights crises of our time" and "the stain of the century".
China's white paper criticised unnamed countries it said "apply double standards to terrorism and human rights and have issued unjustified criticism of Xinjiang's effort."
"This kind of criticism betrays the basic conscience and justice of humanity, and will be repudiated by all genuine champions of justice and progress," it added.
Thirty-five countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia, and North Korea recently accused the West of "politicising human rights" over the Uyghurs and commended what it called China's "remarkable achievements" in human rights.
Dozens of Australian citizens have been caught by the dragnet of China's crackdown against Muslims in Xinjiang, many of whom have family members detained in the province.
An investigation by the ABC's Four Corners revealed last week the extent of China's attempts at cultural genocide against Uyghurs, including a forced labour scheme to produce cotton bought by Western clothing manufacturers.
It also found that several Australian universities were linked to surveillance technologies used against Uyghur Muslims.