Bachelet’s Xinjiang visit is emblematic of the growing divide between China and the west

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s six-day trip to China began with some controversy, and ended with even more. On Saturday, western journalists left the virtual press conference without satisfying answers. Some complained Bachelet had dwelled too much on the US’s human rights problems but not China’s.

Knowing a top envoy from the UN would be restrained in her tone and delivery, Beijing took the occasion to say Bachelet’s trip was an opportunity “to observe and experience first-hand the real Xinjiang”. State media claimed that Bachelet had expressed “admiration” for China’s progress on human rights, only to be met with the UN’s own statement denying she had ever said it.

Bachelet’s office has been measured and diplomatic in approaching a significant player in the UN system such as China in public, and they knew their words matter. Weeks before her trip took place, her spokespeople told eager foreign journalists that “we do not have journalists as part of the delegation … as that can affect our ability to hold frank and open discussions with various stakeholders”.

Critics had expected Bachelet to lambast Beijing on its heavy-handed way of dealing with the Uyghurs – which some call “genocidal”, and which Beijing denies – during that press conference, but Bachelet did not do that.

This trip was a microcosm of the bigger issue between China and the west these days. With trust having broken down, both sides view each other through suspicion and assume the other side’s worst intention. This situation is set to get worse as talk of “decoupling” and “new cold war” continues. An even more worrying sign is that the UN seems unable to help bridge the divide.

“The United States remains concerned about the UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet and her team’s visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and PRC efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit,” US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said in a statement on Saturday. And on Monday, Germany said the trip “fell short of expectation” due to the Chinese restrictions.

Bachelet should have expected harsh words from politicians and activists alike, including headlines such as “How the UN became a tool of China’s genocide denial propaganda”. There seems to be a pattern nowadays that even the UN cannot convince the world of its impartiality: last year it was a panel of experts from the World Health Organization to Wuhan, and last week it was Bachelet.

Bachelet was right, however, to remind her audience of the importance of engaging China at a time of increased global challenges and when many politicians seem to be better at highlighting problems than solving them. They range from the climate crisis to the ongoing global food shortages. Like it or not, the world’s most populous nation will always impact the rest of the world – whoever its top leader.

But the world is also waiting to hear more about Bachelet’s promise that she would “follow up” on instances of human rights abuse as highlighted by advocacy groups. And crucially, there will be more scrutiny of how China responds to the UN high commissioner’s calls to review its counter-terrorism policies in Xinjiang and appeal for information about missing Uyghurs.


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