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China-US divide over UN human rights chief's visit to Xinjiang

·4 min read

China and the US are at odds over the UN human rights chief's trip to Xinjiang, with Beijing saying it "achieved positive and practical results" and Washington voicing "deep concern" over China's alleged "efforts to restrict and manipulate" the visit.

"The United States remains concerned about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her team's visit to the People's Republic of China (PRC) and PRC efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday.

"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 the PRC, including in Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing."

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Blinken made the assessment as Bachelet wrapped up her six-day trip to China, which included talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping via video link and stops in Kashgar and Urumqi in the far-western region of Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has been accused of forced sterilisation and mass internment of members of the Uygur ethnic group and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

But Beijing has long denied such allegations, saying that internment camps are vocational training centres to tackle radicalisation and terrorism. It also rejected the genocide claims by Washington.

Speaking in Guangzhou on Saturday, the 70-year-old former Chilean president said she visited a prison and one of the centres but was not able to "access the full scale" of these "vocational education and training centres".

"I raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the programme ... allegations of the use of force and ill-treatment in institutions, and reports of unduly severe restrictions on legitimate religious practices," Bachelet said.

At the same time, foreign vice-minister Ma Zhaoxu told state media that the two sides "conducted extensive and in-depth exchanges in the spirit of mutual respect and frankness", and Bachelet's visit was an opportunity to "experience a real Xinjiang".

Ma said the accusations over Xinjiang were "lies of the century" and were part of "political plotting" to counter China, saying there had been a "tendency to politicise and instrumentalise multilateral human rights bodies such as the Human Rights Council".

"Instead of reflecting on their own poor record on human rights issues, some Western countries have abused the multilateral human rights platform for political purposes to spread lies and rumours, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries through human rights issues, and wantonly attack and smear other countries," a Chinese foreign ministry statement quoted Ma as saying.

Before the trip, Washington said that it was a mistake for Bachelet to agree to the visit because she would not have the access needed to conduct a complete and unmanipulated assessment, which could also undermine scrutiny of China's human rights record.

As the visit started, a consortium of international media groups also released a cache of photos and documents said to have been obtained by hacking into Chinese official databases.

Along with photos and details of some of alleged camp inmates, the materials reportedly included a speech reportedly given by former Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo ordering guards to shoot anyone who tried to escape from internment camps.

On Sunday, Blinken said he was "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 Uygurs and conditions for over a million individuals in detention".

Repeating calls for independent investigations into conditions across China, he also urged Beijing to respect the human rights of Tibetans and those living in Hong Kong.

"We again call on the PRC to immediately cease its atrocities in Xinjiang, release those unjustly detained, account for those who disappeared, and allow independent investigators unhindered access to Xinjiang, Tibet, and across China," he said.

Bachelet described the arrests of lawyers, activists and journalists under the national security law in Hong Kong as "deeply worrying", and called for religious and cultural freedoms in Tibet to be protected.

She noted that Hong Kong was due to be reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in July, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.