HOTAN: The first grader was a good student and beloved by her classmates, but she was inconsolable, and it was no mystery to her teacher why. “The girl is often slumped over on the table alone and crying,” he wrote on his blog.

“When I asked around, I learned that it was because she missed her mother.” The mother, he noted, had been sent to a detention camp for Muslim ethnic minorities. The girl’s father had passed away, he added. But instead of letting other relatives raise her, the authorities put her in a state-run boarding school — one of hundreds of such facilities that have opened in China’s Xinjiang region.

As many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others have been sent to internment camps and prisons in Xinjiang over the past three years, a clampdown aimed at weakening the population’s devotion to Islam. The Chinese government is pressing ahead with a parallel effort targeting the region’s children.

Nearly a half million children have been separated from their families and placed in boarding schools so far, according to a planning document published on a government website, and the ruling Communist Party has set a goal of operating one to two such schools in each of Xinjiang’s 800-plus townships by the end of next year.

The party has presented the schools as a way to fight poverty, arguing that they make it easier for kids to attend classes if their parents live or work in remote areas or are unable to care for them. But the schools are also designed to assimilate and indoctrinate kids at an early age, away from the influence of families, according to the document, published in 2017.

The schools are off limits to outsiders and tightly guarded. State media and official documents describe education as a key component of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to wipe out extremist violence in Xinjiang. The idea is to use the boarding schools as incubators of a new generation of Uighurs who are secular and more loyal to the party and the nation.

“The long-term strategy is to conquer, to captivate, to win over the young generation from the beginning,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington who has studied Chinese policies that break up Uighur families.

To carry out the assimilation campaign, authorities in Xinjiang have recruited thousands of teachers from across China, often Han Chinese, the nation’s dominant ethnic group. At the same time, prominent Uighur educators have been imprisoned. Children in the boarding schools are only allowed visits with family once every week or two.

Without specifying Islam by name, the policy document, characterised religion as a pernicious influence on kids. By early 2017, the document said, nearly 40% of all middle-school and elementary-school age kids in Xinjiang — or about 4,97,800 students — were boarding in schools. Visiting a kindergarten near the frontier city of Kashgar this month, Chen Quanguo, the party’s top official in Xinjiang, urged teachers to ensure children learn to “love the party, love the motherland and love the people”.