UN rights chief says her rare China trip isn't a probe

Ms Michelle Bachelet said her trip to China's Xinjiang aimed to promote, protect and respect human rights. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - The United Nations' human rights chief told diplomats her trip to Xinjiang this week wouldn't be an "investigation", in an apparent attempt to manage expectations of her landmark visit to China.

Ms Michelle Bachelet said her trip aimed to promote, protect and respect human rights, according two people who attended the Monday (May 23) video call with some 100 participants, who were mostly Beijing-based diplomats. The people asked not to be identified discussing the sensitive issue.

Ms Bachelet said setting high expectations would lead to disappointment, according to the people, addressing concerns raised mainly by Western diplomats on the call over whether she'd be granted unfettered access to Xinjiang.

Rights groups and countries including the US have accused Beijing of putting mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs in mass detention camps in the far western region as part of a campaign of "genocide".

China rejects charges that human rights abuses or genocide occur in Xinjiang, which has become one of the biggest points of tension between the world's two largest economies.

US Ambassador Nicholas Burns expressed to Ms Bachelet "profound concerns" about China's human rights record in Xinjiang and attempts by Beijing to manipulate the trip, according to multiple people on the call who asked for anonymity as they weren't authorised to speak.

A diplomat who attended the Monday call said some countries appeared to have prepared statements defending China, and the organiser also took questions in batches - allowing Ms Bachelet to avoid answering anything too sensitive.

The UN Human Rights Office confirmed in a statement that Ms Bachelet met with diplomats. It added that it doesn't provide detailed itineraries of such visits.

Ms Bachelet met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said in a statement. The Chinese government "made the protection of citizens' legitimate rights and interests its basic task," the statement said, adding that it also "made safeguarding the ethnic minorities' rights an important part of its work."

China’s foreign minister told the United Nations’ human rights chief he hoped her landmark visit would help to “clarify misinformation”, ahead of a visit to Xinjiang.

Mr Wang “expressed the hope that this trip would help enhance understanding and cooperation, and clarify misinformation” during a Monday meeting with Ms Bachelet, a foreign ministry readout said on Monday.

Still, Ms Bachelet said she'd make the most of being in China, where her arrival in Beijing this week marked the first time a UN human rights chief had visited the country since 2005.

The UN official also confirmed she'll visit a detention centre in Xinjiang and has set up meetings independently of Chinese authorities, one of the people said.

Ms Bachelet added that she will produce a report on Xinjiang, separate to the delayed one her office is already working on, without sharing publication dates of either.

She'll also deliver a lecture at Guangzhou University in the southern province of Guangdong, visit Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang, and hold a press conference on Saturday to wrap up the trip, the UN Human Rights Office said in a Friday statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday at a regular press briefing in Beijing that Me Bachelet would travel in a "closed loop as agreed by the two sides" without travelling press.

China is battling virus outbreaks in several cities, as it clings to a Covid Zero policy of eliminating the virus. Ms Bachelet's visit has taken years to arrange, after being delayed by the pandemic and negotiations over access.

Discussions between China and Europe about a trip to Xinjiang by a group of ambassadors reached a deadlock last year, with an official from the region complaining the envoys wanted to meet "criminals". China routinely has police follow reporters who travel to the region.

The State Department this month outlined plans to boost pressure on China over what it called "horrific abuses" of Uighur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. A US law set to take effect next month would ban the import of goods from Xinjiang unless companies can prove they weren't made with forced labor. Washington is also weighing the unprecedented step of imposing severe Treasury Department sanctions on Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., which makes surveillance systems used in Xinjiang.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.