China has gone on the offensive in defending its policies in Xinjiang by inviting European diplomats based in Beijing to visit the region, where it has been accused of locking up more than a million mainly Uygur Muslims in mass internment camps. In a statement released on Wednesday, the foreign ministry confirmed the invitation, saying the diplomats were welcome to come and see the situation in the far western region for themselves. “Seeing is believing. [We] believe the European diplomats will witness the fact that people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang live and work in peace and harmony,” the statement said. It added that the ministry was coordinating details of the schedule and arrangements for the visit. If the tour goes ahead it would mark the first time in recent years that a group of Western diplomats has been allowed to visit the region. Citing diplomatic sources, the Reuters news agency reported that the diplomats – specifically ambassadors – had informally been invited to visit Xinjiang at the end of March, with one source telling the agency the Chinese authorities were “sounding out” interest in the proposal. A foreign diplomat in Beijing told the South China Morning Post that diplomats would accept the invitation, which he also described as informal, only if they were assured of unrestricted access through the visit. Adrian Zenz, a German-based expert on Xinjiang affairs, warned there was a risk that the visit would have a similar outcome to an escorted tour by Central and Southeast Asian diplomats last year, after which Chinese national television broadcast footage that showed the party watching Uygurs “happily” dancing. “This would prove nothing and is only liable to be exploited for state propaganda,” Zenz said. “What is needed is an independent fact-finding mission by experienced experts who have unfettered access to a random sample of camps.” Zenz said the trip would be meaningful only if the diplomats could tour Xinjiang freely and were able to interview locals without restrictions. He added that given Xinjiang’s size, a two-week visit would be the minimum required to investigate the situation and the diplomats’ support teams would need access to technical aides such as free access to satellite images to help determine the location and geography of the camps. Peter Irwin, programme manager of the World Uygur Congress, also said “any visit that simply parades diplomats through prepared facilities” should not be accepted as previous tours had been tightly controlled from start to finish. “Should the diplomats accept, they need to ensure that they keep this firmly in mind where all they are able to see is nervously happy Uygurs without the ability to speak freely or critically about their treatment,” Irwin said. The US-based human rights group, Dui Hua Foundation, was also invited to visit Xinjiang. John Kamm, founder of the foundation, visited Beijing recently and was received by Li Baodong, a veteran Chinese diplomat. “Kamm was invited to visit Xinjiang to see for himself the situation in the autonomous region. He intends doing so at a future date,” a news bulletin posted on the foundation’s website said. China’s activities in Xinjiang have faced increasing criticism by Western governments and human rights groups in recent months. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Beijing was “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations”. The State Department’s annual human rights report said that last year the Chinese government had “significantly intensified its campaign of mass detention of members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang”. The Chinese government has rejected the charges, insisting the control measures are necessary to counter “religious extremism” and fight terrorism. It has also denied that the camps are repressive and says their purpose is education and training. Earlier this month, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, compared the camps to “boarding schools” where “trainees” were allowed to come and go if they wished. Beijing continued the counter-attack on Monday when the State Council released a white paper on the region in which it stated that China has arrested nearly 13,000 terrorists in Xinjiang since 2014.