After 15 years, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s trip to China sparked conflicts with some activists in the Xinjiang region. According to the commissioner, the trip was not for investigative purposes against minority peoples, but to better understand what is happening directly with the Chinese authorities.
Xinjiang is a territory that is suffering repression due to its Muslim majority, focusing on some peoples called Uighurs. Since 1949 and with the Chinese dictatorship, the Uighurs have complained about the repression coming from the governors on their religion and ethnicity.
In addition, since 2017, dictator Xi Jinping has started repression and re-education camps against these minorities, claiming that it was a strategy to control terrorism. The only reason for these measures would be the fact that these people are Muslims, which in itself characterizes religious persecution.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are originally from Central Asia and make up about 50% of Xinjiang. Since ancient times, the Uighur people have been repressed by the Chinese government for their culture, ethnicity and religion. In addition, they are required to participate in a re-education system in camps established by China.
In this context, around 3 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have already been incarcerated in detention and re-education camps by the Chinese government. This stance by the Chinese government has attracted the attention of human rights defenders.
About data leakage in China
The start of the activists’ revolt began with the leak of files of 2017 and 2018 that were initially with Xinjiang police. At the time, around 2,800 photos and 23,000 files of imprisoned Uighurs and Muslims were released.
The regime accuses the Uighur people of promoting terrorism, which is why it has increased policing and incarceration in the province. According to Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and one of the lead investigators on the case, what they’re trying to do is punish people based on what they’ve done in the past, as if they needed to be “re-educated.”
It was Zenz who received the files from an anonymous source and, together with his team, translated and cataloged the material.
Furthermore, these leaked documents were the first materials that really demonstrated the reality of the re-education and repression camps for the Uighur people. For that reason, they hoped that Bachelet’s visit would be a response to what they are going through, as well as an open conversation with the entire population about the problem.
Human rights in China
It has been estimated by scholars and human rights activists that between one and three million Uighurs were held in re-education schools and prisons in Xinjiang. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news conference in May that accusations about the so-called “human rights issue” in the province are unfounded.
Wenbin claims that the information leak is a case of defamation promoted by anti-China forces. According to him, it is a trick, which spreads lies and rumors about Xinjiang. The province, he says, “enjoys peace and stability, its economy is thriving and its people live and work in peace.”
According to Adrian Zenz, the most effective way to pressure the regime to change its relationship with the Uighur people is through international economic sanctions on Beijing and the Chinese provinces.
The leak of information precisely in the week that Michelle Bachelet was in China is a reflection of social pressures for investigation and justice. In addition, several NGOs demanded an incisive stance from the commissioner.
Since 2018, Bachelet has been negotiating a visit to China. The report of the last visit has been ready since September last year, but has not yet been released. The organizations are pressing for the release of the report and hope that the recent contact will be the trigger for new investigation processes and monitoring mechanisms to be made.
In addition to the current requests, one of the next steps is to carry out an investigation into the matter within the scope of the UN, which would first need to have the approval of the Commission on Human Rights. According to Viana, this is the biggest challenge, as China exercises power over some member countries.