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(Bloomberg) -- The United Nation’s top human rights official said any actions by China’s government to address alleged terrorism and reverse what Beijing terms radicalism must not come at the expense of human rights.
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Michelle Bachelet spoke at a press briefing at the end of her six-day trip to China, which she’s repeatedly said wasn’t an “investigation” of Chinese practices in the Xinjiang region or elsewhere.
“I encouraged the government to undertake a review of all counterterrorism and deradicalization policies to ensure they fully comply with international human right standards, and in particular -- that they are not applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way,” Bachelet said.
Her comments were quickly criticized by human rights advocates on social media.
“It is absolutely stunning,” Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told Bloomberg News of the remarks. “It betrays a lack of understanding or wanting to understand what has been taking place in the region.”
Bachelet said she raised “the lack of independent judicial oversight” of the VETC system, or what China refers to as Vocational Education and Training Centers in Xinjiang, but are effectively detention camps. Yet she wasn’t able to “assess the full scale” of the VETCs, she added.
Bachelet mostly steered clear of controversy in her press conference, at which she took questions from reporters in English and Chinese, Her most detailed answer was to a question about gun violence and racism in the US from a reporter with Chinese state media.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press office said in a statement late Saturday that the US remained concerned about efforts to restrict and manipulate Bachelet’s visit
“We are concerned the conditions Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment” in China, according to the statement. “We are further troubled by reports that residents of Xinjiang were warned not to complain or speak openly about conditions in the region.”
Bachelet’s visit had already been criticized for failing to secure guarantees of unfettered access to Xinjiang, where a 2019 United Nations assessment said an estimated 1 million people have been detained.
Bachelet said at the briefing that she was able to speak “unsupervised” with Chinese people. She said she’d visited a prison and a former vocational training and education center, and got to interact with a range of civil society organizations, academics, and community and religious leaders.
US Ambassador Nicholas Burns earlier voiced to Bachelet “profound concerns” about Beijing’s attempts to manipulate her trip, according to people on a call this week with China-based diplomats who asked for anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Call With Xi
Earlier in the week, President Xi Jinping held a call with Bachelet, an unusual move for a leader who speaks mostly with other heads of state that underscored the importance China placed on her visit.
Chinese state media later said Bachelet praised China’s track record on human rights on the call -- something her office later appeared to deny in an emailed “clarification” of her “actual” remarks.
UN Corrects China on Human Rights Chief’s ‘Actual’ Words to Xi
She also met Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Yi, who was pictured holding a copy of book by Xi on human rights, and addressed students at Guangzhou University, in southern China, on a broad range of topics including human rights and sustainable development.
Vice Foreign Minister Ma Xhaoxu briefed the media on Bachelet’s visit on Saturday, China’s foreign ministry said on its website. The two sides “had extensive, in-depth and candid discussions in the spirit of mutual respect and openness,” according to the ministry.
The Chinese readout decried the recent tendency “of politicizing and instrumentalizing the UN Human Rights Council,” and of Western countries “using human rights to interfere with others’ domestic affairs.”
Philip Alston, a law professor at New York University School of Law, said on a Friday webinar that despite the criticism, Bachelet’s trip was “extremely important” because it put a spotlight on Xinjiang.
The former special rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council rejected claims she was being used by Beijing.
“She’s highly experienced, she’s very sophisticated,” he said of the 70-year-old, who was the first woman elected to lead a South American nation. “She’s totally aware of all of the different political dimensions of what she’s undertaking.”
Zenz, though, said that “it will be very easy for Chinese state propaganda to portray this at least as a partial absolution of their policies in Xinjiang.”
(Updates with comment from US secretary of state’s office in eighth and ninth paragraphs.)
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