In a news conference following her landmark visit to China this week, Michele Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke at length on the issue of discrimination and racism and the importance of protecting fundamental rights – in the United States. In response to a question from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
Over the course of a 45-minute news conference Saturday evening, local time, Ms. Bachelet appeared to confirm many of her critics’ worst fears about her China trip: that it would be hijacked by a propaganda network ready to use it to whitewash the country’s record on human rights, particularly regarding the issue of Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of interning hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs in recent years.
Despite hundreds of foreign reporters waiting to ask questions in the Zoom news conference, Ms. Bachelet’s team repeatedly called on Chinese state-run outlets, two of which asked questions unrelated to her trip, earning sprawling answers about school shootings and racism in the United States, and the global challenges of improving human rights.
For the four journalists from non-Chinese outlets able to ask a question, Ms. Bachelet had far more terse responses. She repeated several times that her trip “was not an investigation into China’s human rights policies and practices.” Asked about her ability to speak to people freely in Xinjiang – an impossibility given the tight security in the region – she spoke only of the difficulties of operating in a COVID-19 bubble.
“Official visits by a High Commissioner are by their nature high-profile and simply not conducive to the kind of detailed, methodical, discreet work of an investigative nature,” Ms. Bachelet said in prepared remarks.
“The visit was an opportunity to hold direct discussions with China’s most senior leaders on human rights, to listen to each other, raise concerns, explore and pave the way for more regular, meaningful interactions in the future.”
Ms. Bachelet added that in Xinjiang she had “raised questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and deradicalization measures” – appearing to adopt the Chinese government’s framing of its actions in the region – particularly their impact on Uyghurs and “other predominantly Muslim minorities.”
She said she was “unable to assess the full scale” of the vocational education and training centres (VETCs), as China calls its detention system for Uyghurs and other minorities that former inmates have described as highly securitized “re-education camps” where abuse is rife.
“The government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled,” Ms. Bachelet said, adding that she and her team also raised the issues of families who have lost contact with their loved ones after they entered the camp system.
Reacting to the news conference, Uyghur lawyer Rayhan Asat, whose brother Ekpar has been detained in China since 2016, said she was “disgusted” and accused the High Commissioner of “repeating China’s line” on many issues.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, responded to Ms. Bachelet’s comments with a one word description of the UN system: “broken.”
With Beijing trying to increase investment and development in Xinjiang after the years-long security crackdown, human rights groups warned ahead of Ms. Bachelet’s trip that it was at risk of being co-opted to help repair the region’s image and burnish Beijing’s case against the genocide claims.
After she arrived, Ms. Bachelet was presented with a collection of speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping “on respecting and protecting human rights,” and during a video call with the country’s leader, state media claimed Ms. Bachelet told Mr. Xi she admired the “efforts and achievement China has made in the areas of poverty elimination, human rights protection.”
The UN soon put out a “clarification” containing a transcript of her remarks, in which she did not praise China’s human rights achievements.
Philip Alston, a former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said it was inevitable that China would try and use the trip to its advantage.
Speaking ahead of the news conference Saturday, Mr. Alston said that “reading some of the press, one might get the impression that [Ms. Bachelet] is something of a naif stumbling into a trap she’s not aware of. That’s a silly view, she’s highly sophisticated and totally aware of all the political dimensions of what she’s undertaking.”
“Whatever the intentions of the various parties, this does shine a spotlight on the situation in China in general, and the situation in Xinjiang in particular,” he said. “It’s very important in terms of the principle of accountability that China has agreed to this visit.”
He noted that when he visited China in 2014 during his time at the UN, the authorities “systematically prevented me from meeting with independent actors unless they had been specifically approved by the government and it was extremely difficult to have anything that might pass for a conversation that was free and open.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Alston said, “that did not prevent me from obtaining a strong and clear picture of much of the situation in China.”
Ms. Bachelet was speaking Saturday from Guangzhou, in southern China. It may turn out that she is willing to be more critical once she has left the country, while many have also expressed hope that the trip’s completion will hasten the release of a long-delayed report on Xinjiang.
In a statement issued after the news conference, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress urged just that, noting that so far Ms. Bachelet’s visit “has turned out to be a propaganda opportunity for China to whitewash its crimes against humanity and genocide against the Uyghur people.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.