UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet who completed her much awaited six-day visit to China on Saturday raised concerns about counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang and “deeply worrying” crackdowns in HK and urged China for dialogue with Tibetans to protect their linguistic, religious, and cultural identity. Amid a tussle between her office’s demands for unfettered access, and Beijing’s demand for it to be friendly and not an investigation, Ms. Bachelet told the media on Saturday that her visit was not an investigation at an online press conference from Guangzhou, in which she kept a broad conciliatory tone. 

Regarding Xinjiang, where China has been accused of severe human rights violations for years now, Bachelet said she raised questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and deradicalization measures, and their broad application, particularly their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities. She said that she recognized the damage caused by “violent extremism” but said it was critical that counter-terrorism responses “are not themselves human rights violations” and these are not applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way. At the press conference, she said that she had raised individual Uyghur’s cases with Chinese authorities including of missing family members but did not release any details.

Regarding Hong Kong, she said, she raised concerns over arrests of lawyers, activists, journalists and others under the National Security Law and termed it as “deeply worrying”. On the Tibet Autonomous Region, Ms. Bachelet reiterated the importance of protecting the linguistic, religious, and cultural identity of Tibetans, and allowing Tibetans to participate fully and freely in decisions about their religious life, and for dialogue to take place.

The online press conference by the UN rights chief was criticized by some rights groups and activists for being flimsy in details and playing into Chinese propaganda. Chinese state media got a major share in a 45-minute-long online press conference, to whom Ms. Bachelet gave emphatic answers on human rights issues in the US, while appearing evasive on many questions related to Xinjiang.

Chinese state media got another briefing by China’s vice foreign minister, Ma Zhaoxu within hours of this press conference, who told them Bachelet’s visit had “provided an opportunity to observe and experience first-hand the real Xinjiang”. A news release by the UN said that at the end of her official visit to China, the first such trip in 17 years, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet announced new areas of engagement between her office and the Chinese Government on human rights issues. Ms. Bachelet outlined the new opportunities for dialogue between her office and the Chinese authorities that were discussed during the visit, which include an annual senior strategic meeting, and a working group that will meet in Beijing and Geneva, as well as online. 

“While I’m unable to assess the full scale of the vocational education and training centers (VETC), I raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the programme,” she said, using China’s term for the network of detention facilities through which an estimated 1 million Uyghurs are said to have gone through. She said the government had assured her the VETC system had been dismantled, and she had encouraged them to undertake a review of its policies to ensure they fully comply with human rights standards.

Bachelet said during the “closed loop” tour that she was able to meet senior officials, members of law enforcement, civil society, and senior government figures including the foreign minister and the president, Xi Jinping. She praised China’s achievements, including the eradication of poverty 10 years ahead of its target, universal healthcare, employment protection and new laws intended to improve protections of the rights and interests of women and children.

Bachelet’s visit coincided with the news of a significant leak within the Xinjiang police. The leak included pictures of thousands of people detained by authorities, databases of arrests for offences including studying scripture and visiting overseas countries, and internal documents detailing shoot-to-kill policies for attempted escapes and other measures of enforcement.

The UN Human Rights office had also faced pressure from human rights groups over a long-awaited UN report into the Xinjiang abuses, which was expected to be finished around the new year. In February, media reports said, China had requested the OHCHR not release it before the Beijing Winter Olympics. “My visit was not an investigation into China’s human rights policies and practices, so in that sense it’s not linked to the report,” Bachelet said at the press conference. Human Rights activists have called on Bachelet to release the report.