Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, has staked her reputation and that of the 193-member organisation on an investigation into China’s crimes against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The former Chilean president, long considered a contender to be the first woman head of the UN, this week made a landmark trip to the north-western Chinese region where 1mn Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been subjected to mass internments, forced labour and re-education camps, as well as draconian tech-based surveillance and police persecution.
However, despite her personal experiences of repression and a sterling reputation among UN peers, hopes are dim that Bachelet will learn anything of value about China’s security apparatus and the plight of the Uyghurs. Nor is she expected to persuade Beijing to change course.
Instead, critics said, her tightly controlled mission has been undermined by relentless Chinese obstruction, refutations of wrongdoing and propaganda. The trip has also highlighted years of international failings to hold President Xi Jinping’s administration to account amid China’s rising influence at the UN.
“All our like-minded countries have similar views on the visit: it’s a win for China,” said a senior European diplomat in Beijing. “The best thing she can do right now is be open about the access she’s had.”
Bachelet is no stranger to prisons. As a young woman in Chile in the 1970s, she was captured by secret service agents and held in a clandestine detention centre before her exile. Her father was tortured and died behind bars.
Her trip marks the first time a UN human rights commissioner has had access to China since 2005. It comes against the backdrop of allegations of genocide by the US, UK, Canada and others, as well as sanctions and boycotts of corporations with ties to the region.
In a series of orchestrated events, Bachelet met foreign minister Wang Yi before speaking to Xi via video link and travelling to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and Kashgar, another big city.
“I have been committed to undertaking this visit . . . because for me, it is a priority to engage with the government of China directly, on human rights issues, domestic, regional and global,” Bachelet told Xi.
Beijing has denied the alleged atrocities as the “lie of the century” and accused the US of using Xinjiang as a political ploy to contain China’s rise. However, Chinese authorities have for years controlled access to the region, sealing it from journalists, diplomats and non-governmental organisations.
Wang, the foreign minister, said Bachelet’s trip would “help clarify misinformation” from “anti-China forces” as he presented her with a copy of Xi’s book: Excerpts from Xi Jinping on Respecting and Protecting Human Rights. Photos of the exchange were circulated by China’s foreign ministry and state media.
Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, said China had made the trip a “public relations mess for the UN” and put Bachelet’s chance of improving the plight of the Uyghurs “maybe at 3 per cent”.
But Gowan said the envoy’s trip should be seen in the same light as UN secretary-general António Guterres’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin last month.
“If the UN was not seen to go, that is even more damaging for the residual hope that UN can do some work of value,” he said.
“In a sense, she is sacrificing herself because we’ve known from the get-go that there wouldn’t be real Chinese transparency. It’s a trap. But it’s a trap that Bachelet had to walk into.”
Bachelet is expected to brief media on her trip in the coming days.
Experts said her reputation, and that of the UN’s capabilities to investigate human rights abuses, hinged on her long-delayed report on Xinjiang. Complicating her role is a broader direction, set by Guterres, to keep China onside at the UN to combat climate change.
“The real tell will be the kind of report that emerges,” said Anjali Dayal, a UN expert at Fordham University in New York.
Dayal added that while it was characteristic that UN investigators “do not get the full picture”, Bachelet’s choices of sources and “efforts to counteract” Beijing would reveal the extent of her office’s independence, or its absence.
“It is unavoidable in her role to appear as though you are also taking the government seriously, even if you don’t plan to buy their story . . . The real measure of success will be whether or not she can issue a report that documents things beyond what she has shown by the government,” she said.
Diplomats complained, however, that the UN has not taken a stronger line against Xi over Xinjiang amid China’s rising influence over the organisation.
“China has a long history of being keen to persuade individuals and businesses to participate in quiet diplomacy, talking about human rights one-on-one rather than at the [UN] human rights council or in a series of meetings without media attention,” said one senior western diplomat in Beijing.
“There is very little evidence that this kind of technique works, especially in terms of China’s core interests. Xinjiang is a core interest for China.”
Additional reporting by Arjun Neil Alim in Beijing