Michelle Bachelet’s stay, the result of tough negotiations between the United Nations and Beijing, led her in particular to Xinjiang (north-west), where the authorities are accused of repression against Muslim minorities.
The region has long been the scene of attacks committed, according to the government, by Uyghur separatists and Islamists. In the name of anti-terrorism, the territory has been under draconian surveillance for several years.
Western studies accuse Beijing of having interned more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim ethnic groups in “re-education camps”, even of imposing “forced labor” or “forced sterilizations”. The United States evokes a “genocide”.
China denounces biased reports and speaks of “vocational training centers” intended to eradicate extremism. She denies any “forced sterilization”, saying neither more nor less to apply the national policy of limiting births.
For NGOs and activists from the Uyghur diaspora, Michelle Bachelet let herself be drawn into a communication operation by the Communist Party (CCP).
The official Chinese media have thus abundantly reported that the 70-year-old former Chilean president would have praised China’s progress in the field of human rights.
It is “clear” that Beijing is using this visit “to promote its own narrative and defend its poor human rights record”, deplores Alkan Akad, activist for Amnesty International, in a statement to AFP.
– Press conference –
The goal is “to show the world [that China] can bend a senior UN human rights official to its will,” Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang told AFP.
Michelle Bachelet remained almost silent this week. But she must give Saturday evening, before her departure from China, a long-awaited online press conference.
She is expected to be bombarded with questions about her freedom of movement, her interactions with locals and her access to detention centers in Xinjiang.
Uyghur activist based in London, Rahima Mahmut already denounces “window dressing”. “This is not the neutral, independent and unhindered investigation that we were promised,” she told AFP.
Instead, Beijing is seeking “a blank check to continue repression, surveillance, torture and genocide,” she adds.
Michelle Bachelet has been in Xinjiang since Tuesday. She was to travel to the regional capital Urumqi and the city of Kashgar, according to her services.
What is she doing exactly? Difficult to know, because in the name of prevention against Covid-19, his visit takes place in a health bubble which excludes all the foreign press.
China fills the media void with glowing official accounts of its meetings with Xi Jinping or Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
– “Used” –
The New China agency thus assured that Ms. Bachelet, in front of the latter, had “congratulated China for its important achievements in (…) protection of human rights”.
Contacted by AFP, the UN services neither confirmed nor denied that Ms. Bachelet had actually made these remarks.
But neither the United Nations nor China in any case mentioned Xinjiang specifically in their statements.
Norway-based Uyghur activist Abduweli Ayup says he is “disappointed” that Michelle Bachelet seemed to allow Beijing to “misinterpret” his remarks.
“They used it for their propaganda,” he told AFP.
Chinese media also broadcast abundant images of the former Chilean president being presented with a collection of quotes from Xi Jinping on human rights.
Beijing stressed this from the start of the week: Ms. Bachelet’s visit is not an investigation but an opportunity to “clarify the disinformation” of which China considers itself a victim.
“She must have the political courage and integrity to speak out when her words and her visit are twisted,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University in London.
“If she’s unprepared and unable to do it, she shouldn’t have gone.”