China has said the UN rights chief’s visit to the country this week will be conducted in a “closed loop”, referring to the Chinese model of isolating people inside a “bubble” in order to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, embarked on a six-day trip to China on Monday. She will be visiting the southern city of Guangzhou and two locations in the Xinjiang region, where Chinese authorities have been accused of human rights abuses against Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group.
No international journalists will be allowed to travel with Bachelet, but she will hold a press conference on 28 May, her office has said.
On Monday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Beijing welcomed Bachelet but rejected “political manipulation” over Xinjiang. “The purpose of the private visit is to enhance exchanges and cooperation between both sides and promote the international cause of human rights,” Wang Wenbin told a daily media briefing.
Pressure over Bachelet’s trip has been building since it was confirmed last week. On Friday, a group of 40 politicians from 18 countries warned the commissioner that she risked causing lasting damage to the credibility of her office if she went ahead with the visit to Xinjiang.
The politicians from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, including six parliamentarians whom China has subjected to sanctions, accused Beijing of organising a “Potemkin-style tour”. In particular, they said they feared the government would use the cover of coronavirus restrictions to prevent the visit from being as free as it needed to be.
Bachelet’s trip to China this week will be closely followed by Beijing as well as the international community. On Monday, the British ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, spoke to the UN rights chief in a video call.
Wilson wrote on Twitter that she had “stressed the importance of unfettered access to Xinjiang and private conversations with its people”. She added: “There is no excuse for preventing UN representatives from completing their investigations.”
Bachelet’s trip is the first official visit to China by a UN human rights chief since 2005 and follows months of intense negotiations with the Chinese government over the terms of her access.
Activists say China has violated human rights “on a scope and scale unimaginable” since the then UN human rights commissioner, Louise Arbour, visited 17 years ago. Alleged abuses in Xinjiang include forced labour, forced sterilisation and the arbitrary detention of at least a million Uyghur Muslims.
Beijing has consistently denied these charges and described the allegations of “genocide” – levelled by the US and a number of other western countries – as “the lie of the century”. It has also blamed “anti-China forces” for stoking controversy.