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UN human rights chief starts controversial visit to China and Xinjiang

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. AP - Martial Trezzini

The UN human rights commissioner began a six-day trip to China on Monday. She will visit the remote Xinjiang region, stirring fears about the propaganda value of the visit to the Chinese Communist Party.

The tour by Michelle Bachelet marks the first by the UN's top rights official in nearly two decades and comes as Beijing stands accused of the widespread abuse of Muslims in the western autonomous region of Xinjiang.

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Chinese leadership is responsible for "widespread and systematic policies of mass detention, torture and cultural persecution" in Xinjiang.

According to HRW's China director, Sophie Richardson, “Beijing has said it is providing ‘vocational training’ and ‘deradicalisation,’ but that rhetoric can’t obscure a grim reality of crimes against humanity.”

The French, Dutch and Canadian parliaments have all presented resolutions branding Beijing's policy in Xinjiang as "genocide."

China vociferously denies the accusations, calling them "the lie of the century".

Bachelet conducted virtual meetings with the heads of around 70 diplomatic missions in China on Monday, according to sources in Beijing, who said she gave assurances about her access to detention centres and rights defenders.

Later in the week, she is due to travel to the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar as well as the southern city of Guangzhou.

Welcoming the visit, Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Bachelet will "have extensive exchanges with people from various sectors," without giving more details.

UN officials have been locked in negotiations with the Chinese government since 2018 in a bid to secure "unfettered, meaningful access" to Xinjiang.

Xinjiang's propaganda 

To get a taste of the information Bachelet is likely to obtain, the Xinjiang Daily, the propaganda mouthpiece of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region where most of China's 15 million Uyghurs live, may give some clues.

An article on the front page of Monday’s edition, published on the day that Bachelet arrived in China, has as headline “grow up happily under the sunshine of the Party”.

The report highlights the region’s schooling system, which boasts “full coverage of national standard language training” - hinting at the increased stress on the Chinese language at the expense of minority languages.

The article quotes people with Uyghur names expressing gratitude for Xinjiang’s generous and “equal educational opportunities in accordance with the law.

“Behind the stories of young people growing up and chasing their dreams is the vivid practice of our district to continuously promote more and fairer educational development achievements to benefit people of all ethnic groups.”

But the real message for Bachelet comes on page 4 in a Xinhua News Agency article called “The human rights practice of putting people on top.” Human rights are “the symbol of progress of human civilization,” the paper says, and the Chinese Communist Party, led by Xi Jinping, with his “people-centered approach” sees “the right to subsistence and development as primary basic human rights.”

Then the article elaborates on efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, saying "in the struggle between people and the virus, the highest human rights are human life and healthy life." It then goes on to stress the economic achievements of the region and the fact that “55 ethnic minorities actively participate in the country’s political and social life.”

"Sham" visit

Before Bachelet's departure, international political figures belonging to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) issued a warning, saying that the Chinese government is likely to use its restrictive Covid-19 measures to prevent the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from doing meaningful research, calling the trip a "sham".

"The stakes are very high," warn the lawmakers, who suggest that Bachelet may be presented with a "Potemkin-style" tour where she will see only model institutions filled with people who answer questions following a script.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has already indicated that Bachelet's visit is taking place in what he called a "closed-loop" due to the pandemic. Both sides have agreed not to have reporters trail the visit.

The IPAC fears just that. "Should the High Commissioner fail to obtain the necessary access for a meaningful investigation, the credibility of the office could suffer lasting damage, and the ability of the UNHCHR to secure meaningful future investigations may well be compromised," the parliamentarians say in their statement

Three of the signatories, Reinhard Buetikofer, a German MEP, Miriam Lexmann, an MEP from Slovakia, and Samuel Cogolati, a Belgian representative, are on a Chinese sanctions list themselves.