UN envoy's access to China's Xinjiang under scrutiny as trip begins

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet is expected to visit the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - China has called a mission by the United Nations rights chief a chance to "clarify misinformation" ahead of her visit on Tuesday (May 24) to Xinjiang as Uighurs warned a public relations stunt may lie in wait.

The ruling Communist Party is accused of detaining over a million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region as part of a years-long crackdown the United States and lawmakers in other Western countries have labelled a "genocide".

China vehemently denies the allegations, calling them the "lie of the century".

Ms Michelle Bachelet is expected to visit the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar on Tuesday and Wednesday (May 25) as part of a six-day tour. She met Foreign Minister Wang Yi ahead of her journey to Xinjiang, who also "expressed the hope that this trip would help enhance understanding and cooperation", according to a readout of the meeting released late Monday.

But Uighurs, the main victims of an alleged campaign of repression, raised doubts about her presence if the trip is as highly controlled as expected.

Nursimangul Abdureshid, a Uighur living in Turkey, said she was "not very hopeful that her trip can bring any change".

"I request them to visit victims like my family members, not the pre-prepared scenes by the Chinese government," she told Agence France-Presse. "If the UN team cannot have unlimited access in Xinjiang, I will not accept their so-called reports."

Another Uighur, Mr Jevlan Shirememet, called on Ms Bachelet to help him contact his mother who he has not seen for four years. The Turkey-based 31-year-old - from the province's northern reaches near the border with Kazakhstan - also said he hoped Ms Bachelet would venture further than her itinerary.

"I don't know why she can't visit these places," he told AFP.

Regional capital Urumqi is home to many of the government agencies believed to be behind the province-wide campaign China has described as a crackdown on religious extremism.

The city of four million has a sizable Uighur community and was the site of deadly ethnic clashes in 2009 as well as two attacks in 2014.

Kashgar - home to 700,000 people - lies in the Uighur heartland of southern Xinjiang. An ancient Silk Road city, it has been a major target of Beijing's crackdown, researchers and activists say, with the authorities accused of smothering the cultural hub in a high-tech security blanket while bulldozing Uighur homes and religious sites.

The outskirts of both cities are pockmarked with what are believed to be detention camps, part of a sprawling network of recently built facilities stretching across the remote province.

Campaigners have voiced concern that the Chinese authorities will prevent Ms Bachelet from conducting a thorough probe into alleged rights abuses and instead give her a stage-managed tour with limited access.

"We are very worried that this visit comes with few benefits for victims and activists, for a very high political cost," said Mr Raphael David from the International Service for Human Rights.

Ms Bachelet on Monday (May 23) gave assurances about her access to detention centres and rights defenders during a virtual meeting with the heads of dozens of diplomatic missions in China, according to diplomatic sources in Beijing.

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