Activists Say UN Rights Chief’s China Trip Whitewashed Abuse

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Originally published by Bloomberg UK on May 30, 2022

Top scholar says Bachelet used Beijing’s propaganda language

Trip came as hacked files gave new evidence of alleged abuse

The United Nations’ human rights chief should resign for failing to condemn China after visiting its remote Xinjiang region where the US accuses Beijing of genocide, according to one prominent scholar.

Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told Bloomberg TV on Monday that he considered Michelle Bachelet’s trip to China’s far western region “a disaster.”

“There are now calls to either abandon the UN Human Rights Commission, or to have her step down immediately,” said the US-based researcher. “I think the Uyghurs are feeling profoundly betrayed.”

Bachelet said she’d encouraged Beijing to review its counterterrorism policies to ensure they complied with international human rights standards at a Saturday news conference marking the end of her six-day tour. As part of that, she visited Xinjiang where a 2019 UN assessment found 1 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs had been held in detention camps. Beijing says the facilities are job training centers created as part of an anti-terror campaign, and vehemently denies accusations of genocide.  

“What China is doing in Xinjiang is not counterterrorism,” Zenz said, criticizing Bachelet for whitewashing China’s actions by adopting Beijing’s propaganda language. “If you look at the reasons people are locked away, it’s religious discrimination and cultural assimilation.”

During Bachelet’s China trip — the first by a UN human rights chief to China since 2005 — thousands of seemingly hacked Xinjiang police files provided fresh evidence of alleged Uyghur abuse. They documented a shoot-to-kill policy for escapees in the camps, and evidence of people detained for as long as a decade for crimes such as decreased mobile phone usage — a sign of trying to avoid state surveillance.

Bachelet didn’t address the hacked files during her Saturday news conference, during which she gave lengthy answers to questions from Chinese state media on seemingly unrelated topics such as gun violence and racism in the US.

Still, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday at a regular press briefing in Beijing that Bachelet’s trip had “clarified misinformation” about Xinjiang.

“All foreign friends who have visited Xinjiang will a come to a just and objective conclusion, like the high commissioner herself,” he added. “China attaches great importance to the human rights causes of the United nations. We are ready to play a bigger role.”

Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told Bloomberg TV on Monday that Bachelet’s trip had “achieved exactly what the Chinese government wanted — a near-total lack of criticism of its human rights record.”

“Perhaps worst of all, the fixes that the high commissioner proposed are precisely the ones that have been tried in the past and failed and effectively enable the Chinese government to commit even worse human rights,” she added.

William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said Bachelet’s remarks were too “weak to match the gravity of the situation.”

“To a large extent, this is the sort of whitewashing that the human rights community was afraid would happen when the news of her visit was announced,” he wrote in an email to Bloomberg News.

— With assistance by Colum Murphy, Yvonne Man, David Ingles, Shery Ahn, and Haidi Lun

(Updates with Chinese Foreign Ministry comment.)

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