Chinese President Xi Jinping has defended his government’s record during a video call with the United Nations human rights chief, whose visit to China coincided with the leak of a cache of photos and documents detailing alleged abuses against ethnic Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang.
While Michelle Bachelet’s controversial six-day trip will include a visit to Xinjiang, where her office said last year it believes members of the mostly Muslim minority have been unlawfully detained, mistreated and forced to work, there was no mention of it in a state media account of their video meeting.
Xi told Bachelet that China’s development of human rights “suits its own national conditions”, and that among the various types of human rights, the rights to subsistence and development were primary for developing countries.
“Deviating from reality and copying wholesale the institutional model of other countries will not only fit badly with the local conditions but also bring disastrous consequences,” the Xinhua state news agency quoted Xi as saying.
“In the end, it is the broad masses of the people who will suffer,” he said.
Xi also said he opposed the “politicisation” of human rights as he spoke out against alleged foreign interference in his country’s domestic affairs.
“Countries do not need patronising lecturers; still less should human rights issues be politicised and used as a tool to apply double
standards, or as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” he said.
There was no immediate statement by the office of Bachelet, who started her trip in the southwestern city of Guangzhou, where she met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and had a video conference with Du Hangwei, the vice minister of public security. Her itinerary also includes the cities of Kashgar and Urumqi, both in Xinjiang.
The UN human rights commissioner’s trip has been criticised by the United States and others, who say they do not believe Bachelet would be granted the necessary access to make a full assessment of the rights situation in Xinjiang. Critics also argue that Bachelet’s long-anticipated visit to China, the first by a holder of her office in 17 years, will be stage-managed by China and used for propaganda purposes.
Activists say Chinese authorities have detained at least one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in a network of detention camps and prisons in the region. The United States has described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.
China initially denied the existence of any detention camps in Xinjiang but in 2018 said it had set up “vocational training centres” necessary to curb “extremism”. In 2019, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir said all trainees had “graduated”, while Beijing denies all abuses.
Bachelet has called for unfettered access in Xinjiang, but China’s foreign ministry has said her visit would be conducted in a “closed loop”, referring to a way of isolating people within a “bubble” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On Monday, Bachelet told Beijing-based diplomats that her Xinjiang trip was “not an investigation” into China’s rights record but about longer-term engagement with Chinese authorities, three Western diplomats told Reuters news agency.
Some diplomats voiced concern that she would not be given “unhindered and meaningful” access.
“I’m a grown woman,” she responded to those concerns, two diplomats briefed on the call said. “I’m able to read between the lines.”
Reporting from Beijing, Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu said Bachelet’s trip has so far been “very opaque”.
“There are no journalists, no media [or] anything like that travelling with her due to COVID reasons, and most information that we are getting so far about her day-to-day activities are from state media in China, or just little snippets from her team itself.”
Meanwhile, several international media outlets on Tuesday reported on thousands of leaked photos and documents from Xinjiang detailing the mass detention of Uyghurs between January and July of 2018.
The files were sent to US-based academic Adrian Zenz by an anonymous source who hacked into official databases in two Xinjiang counties, adding to evidence that the mass internments are far from voluntary, with leaked documents showing top leaders in Beijing calling for a forceful crackdown.
“This is by far the most important leak of evidence from the region and the largest and the most significant,” Zenz told Al Jazeera. “It’s much more significant than anything we’ve seen before because it contains evidence on so many levels.”
But China’s foreign ministry dismissed the leaked documents as “cobbled-together material” by “anti-China forces smearing Xinjiang”, with spokesman Wang Wenbin accusing the media of “spreading lies and rumours”.