Chinese President Xi Jinping held an unusual meeting with a top human rights chief, highlighting the importance his administration places on United Nations official Michelle Bachelet’s landmark visit to China.
Beijing is willing to discuss rights issues and cooperate with all parties on the basis of mutual respect, Xi said in a video call with Bachelet on Wednesday, state broadcaster China Central Television reported. Xi added that each country must follow a path of human rights development that suits it based on its situation and the needs of its people.
Bachelet told Xi that the UN Human Rights Commission she heads is willing to boost communications and discuss cooperation with China. “I admire the efforts and achievement China has made in the areas of poverty elimination, human rights protection, as well as realizing economic and social development,” she said, according to CCTV.
The UN commission hasn’t yet provided its account of the conversation.
The call is surprising because Xi usually meets only with other heads of state and top leaders such as the UN secretary general. But his government has been harshly criticised for its human rights record, with US accusations of genocide in the remote Xinjiang region that Bachelet will visit becoming a major tension in relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Beijing vehemently denies the charge, saying it is countering religious extremism and bringing prosperity to the western region that’s home to the mostly Muslim Uyghur people.
Bachelet’s trip has been criticized for failing to secure guarantees from China that she would have unfettered access to people and places she’ll visit, especially the camps in Xinjiang where a 2019 United Nations assessment estimated 1 million people were held. Beijing says the facilities are vocational training centers that teach valuable job skills to attendees.
William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said earlier that Bachelet will “almost inevitably be forced to engage in a highly chaperoned and choreographed visit.” US Ambassador Nicholas Burns told Bachelet he had “profound concerns” about attempts by Beijing to manipulate the trip, according to multiple people on a Monday call who asked for anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak.
Bachelet, a 70-year-old former two term president of Chile, told diplomats on the call that her visit wasn’t an investigation but an opportunity to promote human rights, in an apparent effort to lower expectations, the first by someone in her position since 2005.
The Chinese government published a statement in Chinese that included a photo taken Monday of Foreign Minister Wang Yi showing Bachelet a book titled “Xi Jinping’s Excerpts on Respecting and Protecting Human Rights,” though a similar statement in English didn’t explain what the book was about.
The Xi-Bachelet call comes a day after tens of thousands of apparently hacked files provided new evidence of the abuse of ethnic Uyghurs in mass detention camps in Xinjiang, including documents detailing shoot-to-kill policy for escapees.
The “Xinjiang Police Files” published by the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and shared with a group of global media outlets also contained contained thousands of mugshots of detainees as young as 15.
Bachelet will also visit Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang, then hold a press conference to wrap up the trip.