As UN rights chief visits China, some fear she will be part of the spider


The news was featured prominently in Chinese state media: the United Nations human rights chief had met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during her much-anticipated visit to the country. An article on the website of Xinhua, the state news agency, shared Mr. Xi that the Chinese people enjoyed “unprecedented” rights. Then the article quoted the UN official, Michelle Bachelet.

“I admire China’s efforts and achievements in eradicating poverty, protecting human rights and achieving economic and social development,” she said, according to Xinhua.

But within hours, Mrs. Bachelet’s office responded. It pointed to “her actual opening remarks,” which made no mention of admiration for China’s track record on rights.

It was a stark illustration of the narrative battle over the visit of Ms Bachelet, the first UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit China since 2005. When Ms Bachelet first suggested visiting China, she described it as an opportunity to independently explore China’s rights landscape, especially in the far western region of Xinjiang, where scholars and human rights groups say a million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other predominantly Muslim groups have been detained in indoctrination camps.

But as the journey unfolded this week, it instead became new material for China’s propaganda about the region.

The government insisted the visit would be “friendly” before agreeing to allow Ms Bachelet’s tour, which also includes Xinjiang. Chinese officials have threatened Uyghurs abroad who have asked Ms Bachelet for information about their relatives. Even Ms Bachelet has personally acknowledged the challenge of securing meetings without official oversight.

What Ms Bachelet can see and say about it could have major implications for efforts to hold China accountable for its alleged abuses. Critics say a highly choreographed tour would only lend legitimacy to the government’s denials of wrongdoing in Xinjiang.

“This visit is already being used by China as propaganda to cover up its ongoing heinous crimes,” said Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Ottawa-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project.

In recent years, Chinese authorities have massively expanded the police presence in Xinjiang, destroying mosques and detaining religious leaders and intellectuals. Residents are enlisted in work programs that experts say may amount to forced labour. The United States has labeled the repression as genocide. Chinese officials have denied the charges, saying their sweeping campaign in Xinjiang aims to divert Uyghurs and other minorities away from religious extremism.

On Tuesday, a consortium of media outlets, including the BBC, reported on an extensive cache of internal Chinese police files charting the extent of the repression in Xinjiang. The documents, obtained by scholar Adrian Zenz, include orders for guards to shoot to kill escapees who refuse to stop, as well as a speech by a top security official, delivered at a closed meeting, in which orders from Mr. Xi were cited to expand detention facilities.

Thousands of cached photos show some of those held in the mass detention program. The youngest inmate photographed is 15, the oldest 73. One woman has tears in her eyes, another indication that the camps are far more coercive than the vocational training the authorities portray them.

A Chinese government spokesman dismissed the material as “greasing anti-Chinese forces”. Ms Bachelet, who is not accompanied by reporters on her trip, did not immediately comment on the new evidence.

Ms Bachelet had requested entry into China since taking office in 2018, citing “deeply disturbing” allegations of abuse against Uyghurs. But Chinese officials refused any visit deemed an investigation. In December, a spokesman for Ms Bachelet’s office said that although talks had stalled, a separate report on the situation in Xinjiang, also years in the making, would be published within weeks; he added that the office had “identified patterns of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment”.

But the report was not released. Then, in March, Mrs Bachelet’s office unexpectedly announced that she had arranged a visit for May.

Her office has not disclosed the terms of the trip, which ends Saturday, including who she would meet and under what circumstances. Even the exact dates were not announced until three days before her arrival.

In the absence of information, competing stories of the trip have emerged. Uyghurs abroad, Western governments and human rights groups have warned that Ms Bachelet risks becoming a tool for Beijing’s efforts to condone the crackdown.

China has portrayed the trip as an opportunity for Ms Bachelet to see Xinjiang free from Western prejudice, and to see the success of its efforts to promote the region’s economy while preventing terrorism and religious extremism.

Xu Guixiang, the spokesman for the Xinjiang regional government, dismissed the charges of genocide, forced labor and internment camps. “If they want to see these things, they should go to the US,” he said at a news conference.

China has also made more coercive efforts to control the narrative.

Kalbinur Gheni, a Uyghur living in Virginia, said security officials threatened her family in Xinjiang after she made an online appeal to Ms. Bachelet. She had asked her to investigate the case of her sister, Renagul, who she says is serving a 17-year prison sentence for religious activities, including praying at their father’s funeral, although no official notice of her conviction has ever been received.

Mrs. Gheni said that after she… posted her message on Twitter, Chinese officials contacted her through the WeChat platform. “They said, ‘Yesterday we visited your mother. She’s not doing well. She’s sick, you have to think about her. You put her in such a situation,” said Mrs Gheni.

Her mother called and begged her to stop. A brother in Xinjiang, whom she hadn’t heard from for years, also sent a message urging her not to criticize the government. Ms Gheni said she believed the warnings were the result of threats to her relatives by Chinese officials who were concerned about bad publicity during Ms Bachelet’s visit. “I think they just want to silence me,” she said.

Mrs Bachelet herself has revealed little. On the first day of her visit, she telephoned representatives from dozens of countries, including many diplomats from Beijing. Several people expressed concern about her level of access, according to three people on the phone, who asked for anonymity to discuss the private conversation.

Ms Bachelet assured participants she could read between the lines of what she saw, people said. She said she had arranged a number of meetings independently of the government, although she did not elaborate, citing security concerns. And she said she would visit a detention center, though she didn’t say whether it was government-arranged.

Ms Bachelet’s few public comments were largely non-confrontational. Her opening remarks to Mr. Xi, as shared by her office, raised no concerns about China’s track record on rights. When the United Nations official account on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, shared news of her visit, it quoted Foreign Minister Wang Yi as saying that Ms Bachelet would see a “Xinjiang region where peace and stability are maintained, and people of all ethnicities live in harmony.”

When Ms Bachelet’s office clarified its comments to Mr Xi, it did not specify that it contradicted Xinhua, citing only “commonly reported comments.”

Activists and diplomats acknowledged that it was unknown what Ms Bachelet, or her office’s report, would eventually say. Overseas Uyghur activists met Ms. Bachelet and shared their experiences.

Philip Alston, a former UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said it was critical for Ms Bachelet to engage with China, even given limited access.

“China is no other country. It’s a huge player,” said Mr. Alston Friday during an online discussion. “At some point it’s really essential to be more realistic.”

But China’s growing global power could also dictate what is said about that engagement.

In recent years, China has exerted significant influence on the Human Rights Council, which works closely with the commissioner’s office, said Yaoyao Dai, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who studies Chinese propaganda. If the report turns out positive, China can haile it as justification.

And if not, she continued, China can dismiss the commissioner’s office as a tool of its enemies. “Anyway, the state media has the strategy to respond,” she said.

Joy Dong research contributed.

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