A month ago, Professor Gay McDougall, co-chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, alleged that up to a million people belonging to the Uighur and other Muslim minority groups in China's northwestern province of Xinjiang have been detained in concentration camps to be "re-educated" about religion.

Hu Lianhe, who shapes the Communist Party Central Committee's policies on minorities, sternly denied it: "The argument that one million Uighurs are detained in re-education centres is completely untrue."

He rather spoiled the effect of his denial, however, by telling the meeting that while China was not running a "de-Islamisation" programme in Xinjiang, "those deceived by religious extremists . . . shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education".

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Resettled where? In detention camps, perhaps? The state-run Global Times then defended the detention camps that do not exist by claiming that Xinjiang had narrowly escaped a descent into mass violence and chaos.

"It has avoided the fate of becoming 'China's Syria' or 'China's Libya'." That is not a denial of the policy; it's a justification of it.

You can't have it both ways: China is detaining and "reprogramming" Muslims in Xinjiang (we don't say "brainwashing" any more) on a very large scale. It is doing so because it fears the sporadic terrorist attacks that have hit cities in Xingjiang and even China proper may escalate as Islamic State, defeated in Syria and Iraq, seeks to build support in other regions of the Muslim world.

Religion is not the root cause of Uighur unhappiness with Chinese rule; it is the deliberate effort to submerge their identity by settling millions of Han Chinese in the province that was once known as "Chinese Turkestan".

Only one-fifth of Xinjiang's population was Han Chinese in 1950; today almost half is. Han immigration was spontaneous in the early days, but in recent decades the Communist regime has encouraged and even subsidised it. Muslim Xinjiang, like its neighbour to the south, Buddhist Tibet, is suspect because its religion gives it an alternative, "foreign" loyalty.

As in Tibet, this attempt to make the population more "Chinese" only stimulated resentment and resistance among the former majority population, and the first anti-Chinese violence in Xinjiang began in the late 1990s. Almost 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed in ethnic riots in Urumqi, the capital, in 2009. Since then there have been numerous knife, bomb and vehicle attacks in Xinjiang and China proper.

The official Chinese response has been repression. A vast surveillance apparatus, from facial recognition software to mass DNA collection, blankets the province.

The genius responsible for these policies is Chen Quanguo, who previously used some of the same methods to suppress ethnic nationalism in Tibet. The detention camps appeared and human rights abuses intensified after he was made Communist Party Secretary in Xinjiang in 2016, and he is now a member of the politburo in Beijing.

It's all so predictable and futile. Ignore the real causes of the anger. (The Uighurs are much poorer than the Han newcomers and fear that they will lose their identity.) Treat the symptoms instead. (Blame the terrorism on religious fanatics who have been influenced by evil foreigners.) Take a leaf out of George W Bush's book and go attack the evil foreigners.

Qi Qianjin, China's ambassador to Syria, recently told the pro-government Syrian daily Al-Watan that China is "following the situation in Syria, in particular after the (Assad regime's) victory in southern Syria. Its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria."

And then they could invade Afghanistan. Everybody else has.

Gwynne Dyer's new book is 'Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)'.