What will the UN see as it finally visits China’s Xinjiang?
Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has been demanding ‘unfettered’ access to the region for years, but experts doubt she will get it.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, is finally in China and travelling to Xinjiang nearly four years after first announcing her intention to visit the country amid concerns of serious human rights abuses in the northwestern region.
Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic people who differ in religion, language, and culture from China’s majority Han ethnic group.
“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,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general said in a statement ahead of Bachelet’s visit.
The UN human rights chief first said she wanted to visit Xinjiang with “meaningful and unfettered” access in September 2018, shortly after the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a ground-breaking report on conditions there.
The group revealed that more than 1 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities had been detained in what it said were “counter-extremism camps,” putting a stamp of international credibility on reports and information circulated by rights groups.
More than 400 pages of leaked government documents from China further revealed the extent of the crackdown in 2019.
Since then, many more UN bodies and rights groups have released their own findings based on the testimony of Uighurs themselves, while the Uyghur World Congress held an independent tribunal in the United Kingdom investigating possible crimes against humanity and ruled Beijing was guilty of genocide.
Uighurs say they have faced a host of crimes from beatings and violence, to forced sterilisation and humiliations like being forced to eat pork or live with Han Chinese family “minders”.
Uighurs are also widely believed to be victims of forced labour in Xinjiang’s massive cotton industry, which has created a public relations nightmare for global brands forced to choose between their Chinese customer base and Western ire.
Beijing has admitted the existence of the facilities but says they are vocational skills training centres and necessary to tackle “extremism”. It claimed to have closed the camps in 2019 and invited Bachelet to visit the same year, but both sides have been unable to agree on the terms of her visit.
A UN high commissioner for human rights has not visited China since 2005.
Even now, Bachelet’s six-day trip, which will include Urumqi and Kashgar but not Beijing, is expected to be tightly regulated and a “choreographed façade,” said William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
“It’s very much unclear what she is able to accomplish given what we know the government is going to do there,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Forced to put on a smile’
Propaganda videos of Xinjiang typically show Uighurs celebrating religious events and often singing and dancing in a staged Disneyesque performance of life there.
Bachelet is expected to encounter a similar show and will probably be kept from travelling independently in Xinjiang or freely speaking to residents, experts said.
Rayhan Asat, a Uighur human rights lawyer whose brother Ekpar Asat is detained in Xinjiang, says she expects Bachelet to see a “Potemkin village” in Xinjiang.
“She will be greeted by heavily surveilled Uighurs forced to put on a smile and tell half-truths of how the government helped retrain them. This was made clear when the Chinese government announced that as a precondition to this trip, the visit must be “friendly” and not framed as an investigation,” she said.
There is some speculation that Bachelet’s trip may be the result of a “quid pro quo” deal with China.
Last September, Bachelet said her office was finalising an investigation into Xinjiang, but its release has been delayed for more than six months.
The investigation would have been the first of its kind released by the OHCHR, but China reportedly did not want it published until after the end of the Winter Olympic Games, which took place in Beijing earlier this year.
Rayhan said she was concerned that this deal could compromise the UN’s work in Xinjiang and said she was “doubtful” what more evidence could be needed from the trip.
She also expressed disbelief that Bachelet, the former president of Chile, would participate in such as charade given her personal history. Both Bachelet and her family were detained and tortured during in the 1970s following a coup by Chile’s infamous General Augusto Pinochet.
“Michelle Bachelet was once in exile and the international community believed her account of torture. Now it’s here time to do the same for the victims of the Chinese government’s torture and mistreatment,” she said.
Amid the concerns, Nee said there is some precedent for how Bachelet could behave.
Following a 2016 trip to China, Philip Alston, the then-special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, disclosed the numerous limitations during his trip in his summary report to the UN Human Rights Council.
If Bachelet were to do the same, it might be able to salvage some credibility, he said.
Overseas Uighurs like Ziba Murat said they still hope some good can come from Bachelet’s trip to China, even if prospects are limited.
“We hope that High Commissioner Bachelet will not let her visit be used as propaganda. At least she should fulfil the mandate of her office. This trip has to be transparent in where she goes and who she talks to, and to demand access to prisoners of conscience like my mother, Gulshan Abbas, who have been held hostage by the CCP since September 2018,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“My family and many of my fellow Uighurs who are suffering from this long dragged family separation need to know that the High Commissioner is committed to shed light on this horror that we are living as we speak.”
China has denied the allegations of repression in Xinjiang and says it is trying to help Uighurs and other minorities “integrate” into mainstream society. Using evidence including satellite imagery, witness accounts and official construction tender documents, an Australian think tank found more than 380 “suspected detention facilities” in the region, even after Beijing had said the system was being closed down.
Following China’s invitation to Bachelet, Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said that “seeing is believing” and “there are no so-called re-education camps” in Xinjiang.
“What happened in Xinjiang is vocational education training centres help young people, especially young people, to get skills, to be well-equipped for their reintegration into society,” Chen said, according to the Reuters news agency.
China has also defended its harsh policies in Xinjiang as necessary to wipe out religious “extremism”.
Two key events that set off the campaign of repression were the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and a deadly knife attack in 2014 at Kunming Railway Station in Yunnan Province that was blamed on Uighur separatists.
The United States has called China’s actions against the Uighurs a “genocide”, and the US Treasury has imposed Global Magnitsky sanctions on several individuals and entities in Xinjiang during 2020 and 2021 for engaging in the alleged abuses, including forced labour.
The US also passed a law banning goods made in Xinjiang, while the European Union has also made similar moves.