U.N. Human Rights Chief Tempers Criticism at End of China Trip

HONG KONG — The United Nations’ top human rights official offered limited criticism of China’s crackdown on predominately Muslim minorities, saying at the end of her six-day trip to the country on Saturday that she had raised questions about its application of “counterterrorism and de-radicalization measures” but that her visit “was not an investigation.”

The comments from Michelle Bachelet, the first U.N. high commissioner for human rights to visit China since 2005, were sharply criticized by overseas Uyghurs and human rights advocates who had called on her to more vociferously condemn China’s policies.

Rayhan Asat, a lawyer whose younger brother is imprisoned in Xinjiang, said Ms. Bachelet’s comments “show a total disregard for the Uyghur people’s suffering.”

“The crisis has been going on for six years, and it needs no further examination but condemnation,” she said. “We did not see any of that in her remarks.”

Ms. Bachelet, who spoke by video with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, during her trip, described the main outcome of the visit as the possibility of discussing concerns “at the highest level” and identifying areas “that could be very useful in the future to continue cooperating and collaborating.”

During her conversation with Mr. Xi, she said it was a priority to engage with China’s government on the issue of human rights, adding that China “has a crucial role to play within multilateral institutions” in confronting threats to peace, climate change and inequality.

Human rights groups were critical of Ms. Bachelet’s emphasis on engagement with the Chinese government. “That mandate requires a credible investigation in the face of mountains of evidence of atrocity crimes, not another toothless dialogue,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

China’s increasing global sway has translated into growing influence within the United Nations. Critics say the lack of pressure on China over its rights record is only the latest example of its success in co-opting multinational bodies including the World Health Organization, which endorsed parts of Beijing’s narrative over the origins of the pandemic.

Ms. Bachelet praised China’s poverty alleviation efforts, its support of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, and its legislation protecting women’s rights.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, on a screen in Beijing this week.Credit…Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

One of the longest answers during her 45-minute news conference was in response to a question from Chinese state television about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which her critics described as a distraction from her mission in China.

“Did Texas get more words than Xinjiang?” Ms. Richardson asked.

Still, some experts said Ms. Bachelet was savvy enough to know the limits of such a trip and was right to focus on cultivating ties with the Chinese leadership.

“It’s imperative that the high commissioner be seen to be engaging with the government of China,” Philip Alston, a former United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told an online forum on Friday. “The mere fact that she had a direct exchange with President Xi Jinping is an accomplishment.”

Ms. Bachelet first proposed visiting China in 2018, as “deeply disturbing” allegations spread of an extensive campaign of repression against predominately Muslim minorities in the far western Xinjiang region.

Rights groups and scholars say China has held one million or more people in indoctrination camps, often for commonplace behaviors such as travel to Muslim countries or signs of religious devotion. The authorities have destroyed mosques and shrines, imprisoned scholars and intellectuals and forced people into work programs that experts say amount to forced labor.

China at first denied any such campaign, then framed it as a vocational program designed to steer people from terrorism and religious extremism.

Ahead of Ms. Bachelet’s trip, many overseas Uyghurs appealed to her to visit family members who have been imprisoned or not been heard from in years. They also called upon her to confront Chinese leaders over their policies in the region, which the United States and some other governments have labeled a genocide.

A statue of Mao Zedong and a Uyghur man in Hotan, Xinjiang region, China. Members of the Uyghur diaspora called on Ms. Bachelet to confront Chinese leaders over their policies in the region.Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

The Chinese authorities refused to allow an investigative trip and went to great lengths to frame the narrative around Ms. Bachelet’s visit. When she spoke with Mr. Xi, state media quoted her as praising China for “protecting human rights.” Her office later clarified that she had not mentioned admiring China’s rights record.

During her news conference, Ms. Bachelet called for the protection of Tibetan identity and said the arrests of activists, journalists and others in Hong Kong, under the territory’s National Security Law, were “deeply worrying.”

Her references to the crackdown in Xinjiang were couched in the language of the Chinese government, which has described its program as a response to terrorist attacks. She said she raised “questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and de-radicalization measures and their broad application, particularly their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities.”

She said she also questioned the lack of judicial oversight over camps and reports of unduly severe restrictions on legitimate religious practices.

Ms. Bachelet said that during her two days in Xinjiang she visited a prison and the site of a former indoctrination camp, using the Chinese government’s official designation of V.E.T.C., or vocational education and training center. She said the government assured her that the system “had been dismantled” but acknowledged she was “unable to assess the full scale of the V.E.T.C.s.”

China said it ended the program in 2019, but reporters from The New York Times who visited after that declaration found evidence that the camps continued to operate. Satellite images have shown that China expanded a variety of detention sites in the region, and prisons have swelled after a sharp increase in convictions.

Some overseas Uyghurs say family members in the region were threatened and imprisoned in their homes during Ms. Bachelet’s visit. Kalbinur Gheni, a Uyghur who lives in Virginia, said she received threatening messages from Chinese officials after she posted a message on Twitter asking Ms. Bachelet to investigate the case of her imprisoned sister.

Ms. Asat said she learned that her parents in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, had not been allowed to leave their home during Ms. Bachelet’s trip, apparently out of concern they might meet with her.

Ms. Bachelet said she heard from people seeking information about family members in Xinjiang and raised many such cases with the authorities, but declined to go into details. She said her office would raise questions of intimidation through direct channels.

Vivian Wang contributed reporting.