Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on Wednesday by video with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who is on a visit that has drawn criticism from rights groups and which the United States has called a mistake.
While Bachelet’s six-day trip will include a visit to the far western region of Xinjiang, where her office said last year it believes mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs have been unlawfully detained, mistreated and forced to work, there was no mention of it in a state media account of their video meeting.
Xi told Bachelet that China’s development of human rights “suits its own national conditions”, and that among the various types of human rights, the rights to subsistence and development were primary for developing countries.
“Deviating from reality and copying wholesale the institutional model of other countries will not only fit badly with the local conditions, but also bring disastrous consequences,” the Xinhua state news agency quoted Xi as saying.
“In the end, it is the broad masses of the people who will suffer,” he said.
Bachelet’s office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Critics have said they did not believe Bachelet would be granted necessary access to make a full assessment of the rights situation in Xinjiang.
Bachelet has called for unfettered access in Xinjiang, but China’s foreign ministry has said her visit would be conducted in a “closed loop”, referring to a way of isolating people within a “bubble” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
China denies all abuses.
On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said it was “a mistake to agree to a visit under the circumstances”.
The United States has described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.
Bachelet’s long-anticipated visit to China, the first by a holder of her office in 17 years, has been fraught since its inception, largely over concern that it could lead to endorsement rather than scrutiny of China’s rights record.
On Monday, Bachelet told Beijing-based diplomats that her Xinjiang trip was “not an investigation” into China’s rights record but about longer-term engagement with Chinese authorities, three Western diplomats told Reuters.
Some diplomats voiced concern that she would not be given “unhindered and meaningful” access.
“I’m a grown woman,” she responded to those concerns, two diplomats briefed on the call said. “I’m able to read between the lines.”
Bachelet explained that although her access was limited because of COVID, she had set up some meetings with people independently of Chinese authorities.
On Tuesday, several global media outlets reported on thousands of leaked photos and documents from public security bureaus in two Xinjiang counties detailing mass detention of Uyghurs between January and July of 2018. Reuters could not independently verify the documents.
China initially denied the existence of any detention camps in Xinjiang but in 2018 said it had set up “vocational training centers” necessary to curb what it said was terrorism, separatism and religious radicalism in Xinjiang.
In 2019, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir said all trainees had “graduated”.
On Monday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi presented Bachelet with a book of Xi’s quotations on human rights.