WARNING: Disturbing content

This week 23 countries - including New Zealand - condemned China at the United Nations over its horrifying treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority within its own borders.

The Uighurs are a Muslim minority group native to Xinjiang, the supposedly autonomous region situated in China's northwest.

China has been systematically targeting them, incarcerating Uighurs en masse and attempting to stamp out their culture.

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It's built a series of complexes in Xinjiang, which it describes as perfectly innocent "vocational training centres". In truth, they are modern day gulags where torture and other human rights abuses are rife.

As many as two million Uighurs have been imprisoned in them.

China's brutal persecution of the Uighurs is supposed to be a secret. It still refuses to publicly acknowledge the true purpose of its so-called "training centres".

But the world knows what is happening. The problem is that few other countries seem to care.

"We call on the Chinese government to uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China," Britain's UN Ambassador Karen Pierce said on Wednesday.

One of the camps where China is systematically persecuting minorities. Photo / Supplied
One of the camps where China is systematically persecuting minorities. Photo / Supplied

She was speaking on behalf of a group including Australia, the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Canada and New Zealand.

Some of the world's most powerful countries are on that list. But they are outnumbered.

Valentin Rybakov, the UN Ambassador for Belarus, issued a strikingly Orwellian response on behalf of 54 nations, praising China's "remarkable achievements in the field of human rights".

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"Now safety and security have returned to Xinjiang and fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded," he said.

China itself dismissed Pierce's statement as "slander" and accused her of using human rights as an excuse to "interfere in others' domestic affairs".

Let's dig into the truth of the matter.

China has used violent acts by a small number of Uighurs to paint Xinjiang's entire minority population as terrorists and justify a campaign to surveil, imprison and "re-educate" them.

It has confiscated the population's passports and SIM cards, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the world. Even so, a small number of the persecuted Muslims have managed to escape the country.

Through them, we have a vivid and deeply disturbing picture of what happens inside Xinjiang's prisons.

The most recent account came from a former detainee named Sayragul Sauytbay, who now lives in Sweden after being granted asylum. Sauytbay told her story to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this month.

She was relatively lucky. The Chinese authorities forced her to be a teacher in one of the camps. She endured horrors of her own, but others were treated worse.

"There were almost 20 people in a room of 16 square metres," she said of the regular prisoners.

"Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. If it filled up, you had to wait for the next day.

"Their hands and feet were shackled all day, except when they had to write. Even in sleep they were shackled, and they were required to sleep on their right side. Anyone who turned over was punished."

Sauytbay estimated there were roughly 2500 detainees at her camp, ranging from elderly men and women to children as young as 13. Some were doctors; others peasants who had never visited a city. All were treated the same.

The prisoners' mornings were spent learning and reciting Chinese and Communist Party propaganda songs and slogans, such as "Thank you to the Communist Party" and "I love Xi Jinping".

One of the camps China claims is used for 'vocational education and training'. This one is just outside the town Dabancheng. Four years ago it didn't exist. Photo / Supplied
One of the camps China claims is used for 'vocational education and training'. This one is just outside the town Dabancheng. Four years ago it didn't exist. Photo / Supplied

In the afternoons and evenings, they were forced to confess their crimes and sins. Failing to confess something sufficiently shameful would result in them being punished.

And that punishment was severe.

A separate room was set aside for torture.

"There were all kinds of torture there. Some prisoners were hung on the wall and beaten with electrified truncheons. There were prisoners who were made to sit on a chair of nails. I saw people return from the room covered in blood. Some came back without fingernails," said Sauytbay.

"They would punish inmates for everything."

She told Haaretz the story of an old woman who had been a shepherd before her arrest.

"She was taken to the camp because she was accused of speaking with someone from abroad by phone. This was a woman who not only did not have a phone, she didn't even know how to use one," said Sauytbay.

"On the page of sins the inmates were forced to fill out, she wrote that the call she had been accused of making never took place. In response she was immediately punished.

"I saw her when she returned. She was covered with blood, she had no fingernails and her skin was flayed."

One day a newly arrived prisoner hugged Sauytbay and begged her to "get her out". She did not reciprocate the gesture, but was punished anyway. The guards beat her and starved her for two days.

She said the constant threat of punishment and the lack of any hope gradually turned her fellow inmates into "bodies without a soul".

People who needed medical treatment were deprived of it. Meanwhile, people who did not need medical attention were plied with pills and injections. They suspected they were being used for human experiments.

It was worse for female inmates, who faced the constant threat of rape.

"On an everyday basis the policemen took the pretty girls with them, and they didn't come back to the rooms all night. The police had unlimited power, they could take whoever they wanted. There were also cases of gang rape," Sauytbay said.

The most horrifying crime she witnessed still haunts her when she tries to sleep at night.

"One day the police told us they were going to check to see whether our re-education was succeeding, whether we were developing properly. They took 200 inmates outside, men and women, and told one of the women to confess her sins," she said.

Hotan City in Southwestern Xinjiang. Photo / AP
Hotan City in Southwestern Xinjiang. Photo / AP

"She stood before us and declared she had been a bad person, but now that she had learned Chinese she had become a better person. When she was done speaking, the police ordered her to disrobe and simply raped her one after the other, in front of everyone.

"While they were raping her they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again."

You can find Haaretz's feature on Sauytbay's experience here. It's not easy to read.

Hers is perhaps the most comprehensive account we have of life inside China's re-education camps in Xinjiang, but she is not alone.

The Washington Post has written in detail about the widespread sexual abuse and rape of prisoners. Any pregnancies are forcibly aborted, sometimes without using anaesthesia.

The Independent reports a number of female inmates have contraceptive devices implanted in them against their will.

And the UN's Human Rights Council has been told China is forcibly harvesting organs from some of the detainees.

These are the unthinkable crimes Australia, along with 22 other countries, tried to highlight this week – and the crimes more than double that number casually dismissed.

China's stance is that its critics have equally horrendous human rights records, and are applying a double standard.

"These measures are no different in nature from the deradicalisation and preventive counter-terrorism measures taken by many other countries, including the United States," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said last month.

That argument is not going to stop the Australian government from speaking out.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne touched on the topic during a speech to the United States Studies Centre in Sydney on Wednesday.

"Australia recognises the sovereignty of nations. We do not interfere in other countries' political systems. The best way for Australia to lead, therefore, is to be an example to others," Payne said.

"That means trading freely and fairly, pulling our weight to maintain a stable and prosperous region, not standing idly by when other countries are coerced, and speaking honestly and consistently about human rights. Speaking our minds does not constitute interference in another country.

"That's why we have used our current membership of the Human Rights Council to raise concern about human rights violations in, for example, Saudi Arabia, including the murder in Turkey of the journalist Jamal Kashoggi. It's why we've made the plight of the Rohingya people forced to flee their homes a human rights priority.

"We have also addressed the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang in China.

"We will not surprise any country by advocating consistently for human rights. It will remain part of our conversations, including with China."

China responded to Payne's comments by again accusing the West of hypocrisy.

"Such ill-advised remarks will not help to improve or grow relations with China," the same spokesman as before, Geng Shuang, said.

"We have lodged stern representations to the Australian side and pointed out the inappropriate nature of her conduct.

"The human rights records of the United States, the United Kingdom and some other countries are nothing to be proud of.

"What they need is a proper self-reflection. We advise them to take off the mask of 'human rights guardians', stop politicising the human rights issue and applying double standards."