Uyghurs and other groups in China

A Xinjiang Potemkin? UN Human Rights Chief’s China Visit Draws Criticism


Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has begun a six-day trip to China amid warnings from rights groups and some Western governments that her visit could whitewash Beijing’s human rights abuses in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.

The tour starts in the southern city of Guangzhou and will include visits to the Xinjiang cities of Kashgar and Urumqi, the regional capital. While the trip is set to focus on China’s human rights record and include issues such as Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its policies in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, the Chinese Communist Party’s internment-camp system and sweeping dragnet against its Muslim population in Xinjiang will dominate the agenda.

The arrival of Bachelet marks the first formal visit to China by a UN high commissioner for human rights since 2005 and comes after years of discussions with Beijing to arrange it. Few details are known about the visit and what Bachelet will do and hopes to achieve in the visit, which has prompted protest and backlash that China could look to use the trip to blunt outside scrutiny and criticism of its human rights record.

Such concerns were raised by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) — an international cross-party group of legislators — which in a May 20 statement signed by more than 40 lawmakers from 18 countries accused Beijing of organizing a “Potemkin-style tour” that could damage the credibility of Bachelet’s office.

China has locked up more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities in a series of detention centers in Xinjiang, a sprawling region that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Beijing is accused of grave rights abuses there, including a vast system designed to eliminate those groups’ distinct cultural identities.

“It defies credibility that the Chinese government will allow the high commissioner to see anything they don’t want her to see, or allow human rights defenders, victims, and their families to speak to her safely, unsupervised, and without fear of reprisal,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“Bachelet’s legacy as high commissioner will be measured by her willingness to hold a powerful state accountable for crimes against humanity committed on her watch,” the statement added.

Mounting Concerns

The overriding concern for rights groups, Uyghur activists, and Western officials is that Bachelet, the UN’s top rights official who previously served as Chilean president, will be denied the type of unimpeded access necessary for her office to properly probe the allegations and mounting evidence about Chinese government abuses in Xinjiang and beyond.

The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been negotiating with Beijing since 2018 for “unfettered, meaningful access” to Xinjiang. A five-person advance group from Bachelet’s team arrived in China on April 25 to prepare for the visit that her office said will include meeting with a wide range of civil society representatives.

Foreign journalists take photos and record videos outside a location in China's Xinjiang region that was identified in early 2020 as a "reeducation" facility.
Foreign journalists take photos and record videos outside a location in China’s Xinjiang region that was identified in early 2020 as a “reeducation” facility.

But China’s sensitivity to criticism, its record of reprisals against activists, and its pervasive surveillance capabilities have left many doubting that such criteria can be met.

“We’re deeply concerned about the upcoming visit,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a May 20 press briefing, adding that the United States had “no expectation that the [Chinese government] will grant the necessary access required to conduct a complete, unmanipulated assessment of the human rights environment in Xinjiang.”

In anticipation of the visit, Radio Free Asia reported that officials in Xinjiang were warning Uyghurs not to speak with foreigners and that police in Kashgar were being sent to “political study sessions” to prepare for the UN trip.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (file photo)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (file photo)

On May 26, the first day of her trip, Bachelet conducted virtual meetings with the heads of around 70 diplomatic missions in China and according to Bloomberg, the UN official aimed to lower expectations about her visit on the call, with several diplomats also expressing “profound concerns” about attempts by Beijing to manipulate the trip.

Chinese officials have repeatedly stated on multiple occasions that Bachelet’s visit should not be turned into a “so-called investigation” and have said that they would only welcome a “friendly visit.”

The OHCHR is also set to release a report that it has been working on for more than three years that is based on interviews with camp survivors, consultations with leading scholars, and mounting open-source evidence, such as satellite images and leaked Chinese government documents.

Eager to see the report’s findings, hundreds of rights groups around the world have for months urged Bachelet to release the document, but it remains unpublished and there are worries the current trip could be used to mask those findings.

“It’s time for the UN to officially recognize the brave public testimony of survivors, thousands of pages of leaked Chinese government documents, meticulous peer-reviewed research, and hundreds of damning satellite images of concentration camps,” Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, wrote in an article for The Diplomat. “The trip will be nothing more than a propaganda exercise.”

Beijing’s Global Campaign

China has dismissed the allegations and accounts of its actions in Xinjiang as politically motivated lies, saying that its so-called “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang have been necessary to curb extremism in a region that it considers a hotbed of ethnic and religious tensions.

In the face of growing international scrutiny about its policies — the United States and several Western parliaments have declared that Beijing’s actions amount to genocide and crimes against humanity — Beijing has looked to use its rising political and economic influence to deflect criticism and gain support from some governments.

Police officers patrol the old city in Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Police officers patrol the old city in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Beijing has hosted tours of Xinjiang with diplomats and officials from countries with China-friendly policies, such as Sudan and Tajikistan, where they have then praised Chinese policies in state and local media.

This influence has also extended to international organizations like the UN, where Beijing has pushed and persuaded many developing countries to support or abstain from voting on measures censoring China, leaving only a core group of largely Western nations willing to challenge Chinese policies.

When Ukraine joined more than 40 countries at the UN Human Rights Council in calling for “unfettered access” to Xinjiang in June 2021, RFE/RL and the Associated Press reported that Beijing threatened to limit trade and withhold access to COVID-19 vaccines to force Kyiv to remove its name from the statement.

China’s policies in Xinjiang have also deeply impacted its neighbors, especially in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan, for example, became an unexpected flashpoint of activism following the expansions of Beijing’s camp system in 2017 and 2018 due to family connections between Kazakhs and Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, with several former detainees publishing testimonies after fleeing China for the Central Asian country.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan is the subject of a filing by Uyghur organizations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) alleging that the Central Asian government has allowed Chinese officials to operate on its territory in order to deport Uyghurs back to China to try and coerce them into becoming informants.

  • Reid Standish

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