Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Michelle Bachelet in the southern city of Guangzhou at the start of the first visit to China by the UN’s high commissioner for human rights since 2005. Allegations of human rights abuses against Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region will dominate the six-day, fact-finding mission, although rights groups have warned the trip threatens to whitewash violations committed by the Chinese government.
China has locked up an estimated one million or more members of the Uyghur, Kazakh and other Muslim minorities in the region, according to the UN, in what has been described by the United States and a number of other western countries as “genocide”.
Rights groups have accused China’s ruling Communist Party of waging a campaign to obliterate the minority groups’ distinct cultural identities.
Activists say China has violated human rights “on a scope and scale unimaginable” since the then-UN high commissioner Louise Arbour’s last visit 17 years ago.
Alleged abuses include forced labour, forced sterilisation and arbitrary detention of over one million Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups in what the UN has called “counter-extremism camps” in Xinjiang.
China has repeatedly denied the allegations of genocide as “the lie of the century” and blamed “anti-China forces” for stoking controversy.
Beijing has admitted the existence of the camps in Xinjiang but claims they are vocational skills training centres and necessary to tackle “extremism”.
Ms Bachelet first said she wanted to visit Xinjiang with “meaningful and unfettered” access in September 2018 soon after the UN released a report on the conditions facing ethnic minorities in the region.
Beijing claimed to have closed the camps in 2019 and invited the UN to visit in the same year, however, both sides have been unable to agree on the terms of the trip.
Ms Bachelet told Wang Yi yesterday that she was looking forward to exchanges with “many different people during my visit, particularly with government officials, business leaders, academics, students and members of the civil society working on human rights and other social and economic issues.”
She said: “While we will be discussing sensitive and important issues, I hope this will help us to build confidence and enable us to work together in advancing human rights in China and globally.”
A news release published on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website said: “Wang noted that to advance the international cause of human rights, we must first, respect each other and refrain from politicizing human rights.”
The Ministry said: “Multilateral human rights institutions should serve as a major venue for cooperation and dialogue rather than a new battlefield for division and confrontation.”
No international journalists will be allowed to travel with Ms Bachelet during her visit, which China has said will be conducted in a “closed loop” in accordance with China’s COVID-19 restrictions, meaning the UN’s rights chief will be isolated inside a “bubble” to control the spread of the virus.
It is unclear who the UN rights chief will meet or how much access she will be granted during the visit amid warnings that China may use the cover of coronavirus restrictions to limit the UN’s investigations.
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Speaking on Monday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Beijing welcomes Ms Bachelet but rejected “political manipulation” over Xinjiang.
Wang Wenbin said: “The purpose of the private visit is to enhance exchanges and cooperation between both sides and promote the international cause of human rights.”
Pressure on Ms Bachelet’s trip has been building since it was officially confirmed last week.
On Friday, a group of 40 politicians from 18 countries warned that the visit risked damaging the UN’s credibility if the high commissioner was not allowed unfettered access to the region, accusing Beijing of organising a “Potemkin-style tour”.
The British ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, joined a virtual meeting with the UN human rights chief on Monday.
Ms Wilson tweeted that she had “stressed the importance of unfettered access to Xinjiang and private conversations with its people”.
She added: “There is no excuse for preventing UN representatives from completing their investigations.”
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Amnesty International said Bachelet must “address crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations” during her trip.
Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard said in a statement: “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.
“The UN must take steps to mitigate against this and resist being used to support blatant propaganda.”
Ms Bachelet has been accused of staying silent on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, with her visit coming ahead of the long-awaited release of her report on the region.
Speaking on Friday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price echoed the call of nearly 200 human rights groups for the high commissioner to release her report on alleged abuses in Xinjiang, which has been delayed for years.
He said: “The high commissioner’s continued silence in the face of indisputable evidence of atrocities in Xinjiang and other human rights violations and abuses throughout the P.R.C [People’s Republic of China]. … is deeply concerning, particularly as she is and should be the leading UN voice on human rights.”