US official denounces 'choreographed' visits to China's Xinjiang

Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, on Sept 4, 2018.
Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, on Sept 4, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - "Highly choreographed" tours to Xinjiang organised by the Chinese government are misleading and propagate false narratives about the troubled region, a United States official said, after China announced plans to invite European envoys to visit.

China has been stepping up a push to counter growing criticism in the West and among rights groups about a controversial de-radicalisation programme in heavily Muslim Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.

Critics say China is operating internment camps for Uighurs and other Muslim groups who live in Xinjiang, though the government calls them vocational training centres and says it has a genuine need to prevent extremist thinking and violence.

China's foreign ministry said late last week that it would invite Beijing-based European diplomats to visit soon. Diplomatic sources said the so-far informal invitation had gone specifically to ambassadors and was planned for this week.

A US government official, asked by Reuters if the US ambassador to China, Mr Terry Branstad, had been invited to visit Xinjiang, said there were no meetings or visits to announce.

"Highly choreographed and chaperoned government-led tours in Xinjiang have propagated false narratives and obfuscated the realities of China's ongoing human rights abuses in the region," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The visit this month would be the first by a large group of Western diplomats to the region since international concern about Xinjiang's security clampdown began intensifying last year. Hundreds have died in unrest in Xinjiang in recent years.

 
 

Several groups of diplomats from other countries have already been brought to Xinjiang on tightly scripted trips since late December to visit the facilities.

There have been two such visits this year: one was by a small group of European Union diplomats, and the other by a group of diplomats from a broader mix of countries, including Greece, Hungary and North African and South-east Asian states.

A Reuters journalist visited on a government-organised trip in January.

The US official described what was happening in Xinjiang as "a highly repressive campaign", and said claims that the facilities were "humane job-training centres" or "boarding schools" were not credible.

"We will continue to call on China to end these counter-productive policies, free all those who have been arbitrarily detained, and cease efforts to coerce members of its Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate."

China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. China has rejected all foreign criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, and says it invites foreigners to visit to help them better understand the region.

Earlier this month, the US State Department said China's treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang marked the worst human rights abuses "since the 1930s".

The issue of Xinjiang adds another irritant to already strained ties between Washington and Beijing, which are trying to end a bitter trade war, and have several other areas of disagreement, including the disputed South China Sea and US support for Chinese-claimed Taiwan.

 
 
 

Late last year, more than a dozen ambassadors from Western countries, including France, Britain and Germany, and the EU's top envoy in Beijing, wrote to the government to seek a meeting with Xinjiang's top official, Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, to discuss their concerns about the rights situation.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has weighed sanctions against senior Chinese officials in Xinjiang, including Mr Chen.

Two diplomatic sources told Reuters on Saturday that government officials had said a meeting with Mr Chen was not being offered to the European ambassadors, and that the trip was not to discuss human rights but to talk about China-Europe cooperation on President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road project.

It remains unclear whether they would accept the invitation, though the two sources said it was unlikely.

The EU's embassy in Beijing has declined to comment on the invitation.

Mr Xi is currently in Europe on a state visit to Italy, Monaco and France. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang goes to Brussels next month for a China-EU summit.

EU leaders said on Friday that the bloc must recognise that China is as much a competitor as a partner.