The United Nations’ human rights chief flew into China Monday to the dismay and anger of human rights groups and Uyghur activists as she told diplomats her trip to Xinjiang this week wouldn’t be an “investigation” in what was seen as effort to lower expectations.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet arrived in China and told a video call with some 100 participants, mostly Beijing-based diplomats, that setting high expectations would lead to disappointment, according Bloomberg News Agency, which quoted participants without naming them.
The trip by Bachelet, a former Chilean president who is the first rights chief to visit China since 2005, has sparked concerns that it will be used by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to whitewash and legitimize its rights record.
“Michelle Bachelet’s long-delayed visit to Xinjiang is a critical opportunity to address human rights violations in the region, but it will also be a running battle against Chinese government efforts to cover up the truth,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard.
“The UN must take steps to mitigate against this and resist being used to support blatant propaganda,” she added in a statement.
“To turn this landmark visit to China into a promotional tour would be a mistake that tarnishes the reputation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and leaves the Uyghurs facing genocide at the hands of China to struggle alone,” said the Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs.
Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Bachelet will travel in a “closed loop,” ostensibly to minimize COVID-19 transmission risk, which will mean she won’t be able to meet anyone outside of the list of contacts pre-arranged by Chinese officials.
No journalists will be able to travel with her either, during the May 23-28 trip, Wang said.
“Of course #China govt, intolerant of free speech and press, didn’t want journalists traveling with @UNHumanRights @mbachelet. But did UN try to argue for it? No one representing #humanrights, #democracy should make this mistake,” tweeted Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Rights activist have long warned that Bachelet will be kept by Chinese minders from seeing the true picture of what is taking place in the region, including reports of Uyghurs being held in a network of detention camps and being used as forced labor at Chinese factories.
During her May 23-28 visit, she will meet with high-level government levels, academics, and representatives from civil society groups and businesses during stops in the southern city of Guangzhou and in the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) and Kashgar (Kashi), the U.N. said last week.
“We are deeply disappointed to learn that U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet is not going to investigate the genocide against the Uyghur people in East Turkestan but rather make a symbolic visit just as China wished,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC). East Turkestan is the Uyghurs preferred name for Xinjiang.
“We have repeatedly cautioned High Commissioner Bachelet that such visit would be highly damaging to the U.N. credibility and play right into the hands of the Chinese government to manipulate this trip to whitewash the genocide,” the Germany-based Isa, told RFA.
China angrily rejects all genocide and forced labor claims as politically motivated attacks on its security and development policies in the vast western region. Beijing has calling for a “friendly” visit by Bachelet.
Uyghurs have been pressing for the release of a report on the rights situation in Xinjiang by the OHCHR, Bachelet’s office in Geneva, which has been delayed since September.
Ordinary Chinese have also pressed the U.S. rights chief to take up the cases of jailed loved ones.
The mother of a man jailed and reportedly tortured after someone posted a photo of ruling CCP leader Xi Jinping’s daughter to a website he ran said she has written to Bachelet, calling on her to ask authorities in the southern province of Guangdong about his case.
“I heard Ms. Bachelet was going to be Guangzhou this week, and the miscarriage of justice involving [my son] Niu Tengyu and 24 other young people also took place here in Guangdong,” Niu’s mother Coco told RFA. “I hope that Ms. Bachelet can call on the Guangdong authorities to revoke these miscarriages of justice and release Niu Tengyu, and all the other young people.”
“I hope she will bring this case up with the country’s leaders and urge Guangdong to right this wrong,” she said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Yu Wensheng tweeted that he was looking forward to briefing her about the human rights situation in China, although he is highly unlikely to have access.
Fellow rights attorney Wang Yu called on Bachelet to meet with some of China’s human rights lawyers, and inquire after jailed lawyers Li Yuhan, Chang Weiping, Ding Jiaxi and Qin Yongpei.
Controlling the narrative
Pema Dolma, a London-based campaign director of the activist group Students for Free Tibet, said the lack of transparency rendered the entire visit suspect, however.
“If there is any indication that this visit is subject to restrictions [by the Chinese government], will the High Commissioner immediately end her visit?” she said. “I think it is safe to say that the answer is no.”
Bachelet traveled this week in spite of calls from 220 human rights organizations, who called in a joint statement earlier this month for her to cancel her trip. The statement received no response.
“Having an opaque visit to China and writing a report that highlights the concerns of the Chinese government rather than those of civil society is actually part of what Xi Jinping wants,” Pema Dolma said. “[He wants] to be able to control the human rights narrative.”
Bachelet also arrives just ahead of the politically sensitive anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, an overseas-based rights group said.
“Your trip occurs on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, an act of horrific state violence against peaceful protestors, for which there has been no accountability, and which the Chinese Communist Party–– through censorship, threats, and jail–– is determined to bury, in an ongoing campaign of ‘enforced amnesia’,” the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an open letter ahead of Bachelet’s trip.
“We ask you to inquire about the fate of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of the victims’ mothers and relatives, formed shortly after June 4, 1989, who are … seeking accountability for the ‘disappearance’ of their sons and daughters,” it said.
It said Bachelet’s visit had sparked fears among rights activist that it would be “carefully managed and choreographed by the Chinese government so that you will see and hear only what the government wants you to see and hear.”
“We are concerned that … you will have no unhindered access to the victims, eyewitnesses, independent members of civil society, and that your voices will be silenced and your views distorted by the Chinese government if and when you speak up about the lack of meaningful and unfettered access,” the letter said.
It called on Bachelet to stand with the Tiananmen Mothers and their “missing” children, and to speak up for all those still “missing” in the Uyghur and Tibetan regions, Hong Kong and the rest of China.
The six-day visit “will only be able to scratch the surface of addressing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” said Amnesty’s Callamard.
“But at the very least Bachelet’s visit must focus on the victims of China’s crackdown: the Uyghurs and other Muslims who have been targeted and the many families overseas who are tormented by not knowing where their relatives are held and how to pursue justice, truth and reparation.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie and Paul Eckert.