The office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has clarified remarks Bachelet made during her current visit to China, saying her comments had been misquoted or mischaracterized by Chinese state media.
Human rights groups said the misquotations reflected a broader attempt by China to put a positive spin on the visit, in which Bachelet seeks to look into Beijing’s treatment of the ethnic Uyghur minority concentrated in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.
The six-day visit, which ends Saturday, will include the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang, where China has been accused of crimes against humanity and genocide by some human rights organizations and governments, including that of the United States. The issue led to diplomatic boycotts of the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year.
In an email to VOA, spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell said Bachelet did "commend China's achievements in eradicating poverty," but she did not "admire China's efforts and achievements in eradicating poverty, protecting human rights, and realizing economic and social development," as reported by the Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV.
"She [Bachelet] said, 'China has a crucial role to play within multilateral institutions,' " Throssell told VOA. But she disputed English subtitles in a CCTV report that indicated that she "commended China's important role in upholding multilateralism."
The Chinese Embassy in Iraq tweeted that "Bachelet congratulated #China on its important achievements in economic and social development and human rights protection."
But according to Throssell, Bachelet actually said, "We will be discussing sensitive, important human rights issues, and I hope this visit will help us work together to advance human rights in China and globally."
Many human rights groups worry that Bachelet's China trip will not reveal anything new on the country's treatment of Uyghurs, pointing to the misleading statements as examples of China's attempt to control the messaging of the visit and the trip itself.
"This is such a clear example of the not-so-subtle way the Chinese government is trying to frame the visit in their favor," Peter Irwin, of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told VOA. "China has had close to three years to lay the groundwork for an on-the-ground visit, which is why we don't see it as particularly useful. They have a clear plan to undermine her office's work and present an alternate reality to the rest of the world."
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA's request for comment at the time of publication.
After a meeting with Bachelet on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi released a statement saying that Wang “expressed the hope that this trip would help enhance understanding and cooperation, and clarify misinformation."
The statement also said Beijing has "made safeguarding the ethnic minorities' rights an important part of its work, and protecting people's safety its long-term goal."
China has repeatedly denied the mistreatment of Uyghurs and accusations of detaining members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group in internment camps. According to state news agency Xinhua, Beijing describes the camps as "vocational training" facilities to help "boost rural vitalization" in Xinjiang. Vocational training is also a way "to tackle the menace of terrorism and radicalization," according to the news agency, citing a deadly terrorist attack in 2014 in the region.
In its statement, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Bachelet's visit was the first by a U.N. high commissioner for human rights in 17 years. "To advance the international cause of human rights, we must first respect each other and refrain from politicizing human rights," it said.
Bachelet's trip coincides with the release of the so-called Xinjiang Police Files, "a cache of data hacked from police computer servers in the region," according to the BBC. The information includes thousands of photographs — including mug shots — and documents that show the Chinese government targeting Uyghurs for their ethnicity and Islamic faith.
While rights organizations doubt anything will come of the visit because of China's tight control, Irwin said the trip could still be valuable "if the high commissioner actually challenges the government on the mountains of evidence that points to atrocity crimes being committed.
“The gulf between the way in which Chinese state media frame the visit and the reality as documented by our own organization cannot be wider at the moment," he said.