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U.N. human rights chief disappoints Uyghur advocates on visit to China

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, attends a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Guangzhou, China, on May 25. (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights/AFP/Getty Images)
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SHENZHEN, China — U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet ended a long-awaited trip to China with cautious criticism of the country’s crackdown in the Xinjiang region, balanced with praise for Chinese authorities, in what rights advocates called a propaganda win for Beijing.

In a news conference in Beijing on Saturday, Bachelet reiterated that her trip was “not an investigation.” She said she was unable to determine the scale of a Xinjiang reeducation and incarceration program directed at ethnic Uyghurs, saying high-profile official visits were not conducive to “discreet work of an investigative nature.”

Beijing has repeatedly denied accusations of committing cultural genocide against Muslim Uyghur residents in Xinjiang, where up to an estimated 2 million residents have been incarcerated, according to rights researchers.

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Bachelet said she encouraged Beijing to review its “counterterrorism” policies to ensure that they complied with international human rights standards and that they were not applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way. “I have heard you,” she said, regarding those who made appeals to her about specific human rights cases.

Bachelet is the first U.N. human rights chief to visit China since 2005, and her trip was the result of years of negotiation. Activists were widely disappointed that she did not criticize China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang more forcefully or manage to ferret out new details about the situation on the ground.

“The High Commissioner’s remarks were too non-specific and weak to match the gravity of the situation,” William Nee, advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a D.C.-based nongovernmental organization, said on Twitter. “To a large extent, this is the sort of white washing that the human rights community was afraid would happen when the news of her visit was announced.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns Saturday about China’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit,” and he said Bachelet was unable to access individuals who were part of labor transfer programs from Xinjiang to other parts of the country.

“We are further troubled by reports that residents of Xinjiang were warned not to complain or speak openly about conditions in the region, that no insight was provided into the whereabouts of hundreds of missing Uyghurs,” Blinken said in a statement.

Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York, said Bachelet’s cautious remarks reflect the limited influence the United Nations has over China, with Bachelet trying to use praise to encourage Beijing to make some changes.

“If the U.N. came out and started attacking China, it would be unlikely to make China do anything. At least that’s their perspective,” he said.

Bachelet and Beijing agreed to start an annual senior strategic meeting and set up working groups to discuss human rights and minority rights issues. Ku said these kinds of dialogues have had limited results in influencing China’s policies in past years.

Chinese officials touted her trip as a success. China’s Foreign Ministry released a readout of Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu’s media briefing on Saturday, in which he said Bachelet had gotten to see the “real Xinjiang.”

“Certain Western countries, out of ulterior motives, went to great lengths to disrupt and undercut the High Commissioner’s visit, their plot didn’t succeed,” the ministry’s readout said.

On the second day of her mission to China to look into human rights violations in Xinjiang, Bachelet posed for photos with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who gave her a book by the nation’s leader, “Excerpts From Xi Jinping on Respecting and Protecting Human Rights,” and said he hoped the trip would “help enhance understanding … and clarify misinformation.”

Bachelet spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping by video conference on Wednesday, stating afterward that it was an opportunity to “discuss directly human rights issues and concerns in China and the world.”

Beijing has previously said that such a trip would not constitute an investigation into rights abuse claims, which it calls “the lie of the century.”

Ku said that part of the disappointment among rights activists came from heightened expectations that after years of negotiating the trip, Bachelet would have gotten more access.

“If she’d gone five years ago, people would not be as upset,” he said.

Lily Kuo in Taipei and Cate Cadell in Washington contributed to this report.

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