As United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet continues her trip in China, all sides are closely monitoring how she handles the tricky and sensitive topic of China's persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, where new leaked documents suggest some villages in the autonomous region could have the highest jailing rate in the world.
Diplomatic sources who attended a video call with Bachelet told Bloomberg that the UN human rights chief said her trip to China aims to "promote, protect and respect human rights" rather than to conduct an investigation. According to them, Bachelet said setting high expectations for her trip would lead to "disappointment."
That same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Bachelet's visit would be organized within a "close loop," meaning she would only attend meetings with a small group organized by Beijing. Additionally, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he hoped Bachelet's trip would help "clarify misinformation," according to a statement released by his office.
Evidence of large-scale internment
Over the last few years, investigations and research have revealed significant evidence of large-scale internment and imprisonment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, with a UN panel estimating that more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps across Xinjiang.
While the Chinese government has admitted the existence of these camps, it says they are "vocational training centers" targeting individuals who are believed to have been influenced by "extremism." In 2019, China claimed that it had closed all the camps in Xinjiang and invited Bachelet to visit the region, but she was only able to make the trip this month, after more than two years of negotiation.
Over the last year, the US has repeatedly described China's persecution of Uyghurs as "genocide," and on Tuesday, Beijing accused the US and other Western countries of seeking to sabotage its foreign relations by orchestrating criticism surrounding Bachelet's visit.
"They openly pressured and strongly demanded that the high commissioner visit China and Xinjiang, and conducted the so-called investigation with presumption of guilt," Wang said.
Questions over authenticity of trip
With tight controls around her trip, some human rights activists say they don't think Bachelet will be freely visiting sites or interacting with people that the authorities don't want her to see or talk to.
"Everyone she speaks to will be known to authorities and those people will let authorities know that they have talked to her," according to Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch.
"I think we can reasonably expect either that there will be reprisals against those people or that there will be surveillance. This is a government that regularly tops the charts of the records that the UN itself tracks on reprisals against people simply for engaging with the UN human rights system," she added.
Other overseas Uyghurs say that while it's unlikely that Beijing will let Bachelet know what's really happening in Xinjiang's detention camps, they still hope she can "stand on the right side of the history," Abduweli Ayup, an exiled Uyghur linguist in Norway, told DW.
"If Bachelet says what's happening in Xinjiang is true or partly true, the Uyghurs will get more international support," he said. "I don't like the UN, but we only have one UN. It's not powerful but it's significant because it's the only one. I hope she will do something."
Intimidation of Uyghurs overseas
Prior to Bachelet's visit, some Uyghurs in Xinjiang were reportedly threatened by local police after their families abroad called on Bachelet to inquire about the situation of their imprisoned family members on Twitter.
Kalbinur Gheni, a Uyghur woman who has been living in the United States under political asylum since 2019, told DW that after she sent a tweet asking Bachelet to meet her sister at the prison in Xinjiang, her mother called her and said she heard Gheni had been carrying out anti-Beijing work in the United States.
"She asked me to think for her and my brother in Xinjiang and she asked me to stop speaking out for my sister on social media," she told DW. "On the same day, a police officer from my hometown in Xinjiang left me voice messages on WeChat, telling me that he had visited my mom."
Gheni's experience is not an isolated incident. A report published by the Uyghur Human Rights Project in November 2021 documents how the Chinese government often uses threats against relatives in Xinjiang to try to silence Uyghur activists abroad.
Despite the threat against her family members in Xinjiang, Gheni said she hopes Bachelet can try to understand the feelings of overseas Uyghurs and understand how much risk they have to take in order to speak up for their imprisoned family members in Xinjiang.
"I hope she understands that not every Uyghur can speak out for their families… I hope she will actually look into persecutions against Uyghurs instead of just looking through the 'staged performance' prepared by the Chinese government," said Gheni.
New leaked documents show scale of persecution
As the world zooms in on Bachelet's trip to Xinjiang, two new leaked documents have provided more evidence about the scale of China's repression of Uyghurs. According to leaked data shared with the Associated Press, nearly one in 25 people in Konasheher county in Xinjiang have been sentenced on charges related to terrorism.
In total, more than 10,000 Uyghurs out of 267,000 people from the county have been imprisoned and their sentences are between two and 25 years. Observers say this proves that China is using lengthy jail sentences to crack down on Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
"The list tells us what these Uyghurs are accused of and how long are their prison sentences," said exiled Uyghur linguist Ayup, who passed the list to the AP news agency.
Ayup identified names of his neighbors and relatives on the list and described the experience of working on the leaked data as very difficult. "Some of these people are my childhood friends, and we grew up together," he told DW. "It reminded me of my childhood and my neighborhood. This is my personal story."
On Tuesday, thousands of photos of detained Uyghurs and documents from another set of leaked data showed China using a shoot-to-kill policy for Uyghurs who dare to escape the internment camps.
The files also prove how political paranoia that "promotes exaggerated threat perceptions" had resulted in the "pre-emptive" internment of large numbers of ordinary citizens, according to Adrian Zenz, an expert on China's persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, who received the leaked data from hackers.
Named "the Xinjiang Police Files," the leaked data shows that in 2017 and 2018, 12% of Uyghur adults from just one Uyghur county were detained. The youngest Uyghur who was confirmed to have been in a re-education camp was almost 15 years old when the image was taken, according to analysis shared by Zenz in Twitter.
Beijing accuses 'anti-China forces'
When asked about the leaked documents on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang dismissed them as "cobbled-together material" by "anti-China forces smearing Xinjiang." Once again, Wang accused the media of "spreading lies and rumors."
But with evidence of Beijing's persecution of Uyghurs continuing to be made public, some experts say Bachelet and her office will be on the line.
"It's indisputable at this point that there is ongoing, long-term persecution against Uyghurs that includes extrajudicial detention, separation of parents and children, invasive birth control, government homestay programs and the transfer of population through coerced or forced labor," said Timothy Grose, a Xinjiang expert at the Rose-Hulman Institute in the United States.
"We'll see what comes out of the report after her trip. From my knowledge, at least among my colleagues in the Xinjiang studies' field, is that no one from Bachelet's team has reached out to us or any Uyghur in the diaspora to get our perspectives or insight. If this was going to be a serious report, they would have tapped into the hundreds of resources and primary documents that we have," he added.
Edited by: Leah Carter