CHINESE officials have defended the mass internment of Uighur and Kazakh Muslims by claiming it is saving ethnic minority groups from the lure of religious extremism.

Shohrat Zakir, the governor of the far-west Xinjiang region, described the internment as “free vocational training” which also provided people with skills to work in factories by teaching them to speak Mandarin and accept modern science.

Xinjiang, the north-western region where most Uighurs live, has been enveloped in recent years in police surveillance that authorities insist is required to combat extremism.

The report carried in official news outlets was a rare public move by a senior Chinese official to detail the goals of the Communist Party’s extrajudicial detention of an estimated one million ethnic minority Muslims.

The party’s vision entails Central Asian ethnic groups undergoing intensive assimilation in Chinese language and culture, and push them to adopt what the party considers a modern, civilised way of life.

The region’s Turkic-speaking Uighurs have long resented restrictions placed on their religious practices and complained of meeting widespread discrimination in jobs and access to passports.

Details in Zakir’s depiction of the centres are contradicted by accounts of former detainees. They have described being held in camps where they were forced to recite party slogans and renounce their faith.

Omir Bekali, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh citizen, said he was kept in a cell with 40 people inside a heavily-guarded facility.

Before meals, they were told to chant: “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland!” During daily mandatory classes, they were told that their people were backward before being “liberated” by the party in the 1950s. Zakir said that “trainees” were put on the path toward a “modern life” and made “confident about the future”.

China has increased propaganda efforts to defend its measures in Xinjiang following growing criticism from human rights groups and western countries. Last month, UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said that monitors should be allowed into the region.