A top US diplomat has warned the UN that an upcoming visit of its top counter-terrorism official to Xinjiang, on China’s frontier with Central Asia, would put the organisation’s reputation on human rights “at risk”.
The warning follows a concerted diplomatic push by the US to persuade other countries to step up their criticism of China for human rights violations against Muslims in Xinjiang.
An estimated 1m Uighurs, a Muslim people native to Xinjiang, have been detained in “re-education” camps in the region over the past two years, including university scholars, musicians, elderly people and anyone who has travelled abroad. Beijing claims the policy has prevented any violent attacks in the region during that period.
John Sullivan, US deputy secretary of state, told António Guterres, UN secretary-general, that the planned visit of Vladimir Voronkov to Xinjiang was “highly inappropriate”, in a phone call on Friday. It risked lending “credence” to Beijing’s claims its campaign against the Uighurs was a counter-terrorism operation, Mr Sullivan said.
Outside the camps themselves, Mr Voronkov will find fewer outward signs of the security regime that has up to 10 per cent of the Uighur population in its grip.
China has recently refitted some of the detention camps with “friendlier” glass-and-steel gates, and removed the police posts and some concertina wire around them, according to recent visitors to the region. The camps can hold thousands of people in detention centres and affiliated textile factories, where co-operative inmates must work after completing their “education”.
Most mosques across the region remain shut or thinly attended, even during Ramadan. In the historic city of Kashgar, the police stations placed at mosque gates have been disguised as “tourist information centres” to give an impression of normalcy, and some of the ubiquitous checkpoints have been dismantled, the visitors said.
Journalists and diplomats from majority-Muslim nations who participated in government-organised tours this year have been introduced to “vocational students” who say they are happy to learn Mandarin Chinese as well as sewing skills in the camps. Comparisons of photos from separate visits show the same individuals are repeatedly introduced to different tours.
Inmates also sing Chinese versions of Uighur songs. During a January tour, journalists were treated to a rousing rendition of “if you are happy and you know it, clap your hands” in English.
The US state department intensified conversations with EU member states and several Asian nations earlier this year, urging them to be more “vocal” in attacking Beijing over the mass detentions of the Uighurs.
Earlier this year, a group of European diplomats turned down an offer from China’s ministry of foreign affairs to attend a hastily arranged tour, arguing for free access to the region instead. Their spouses then turned down an offer by a private individual to fly them to the region in a military plane, in what many feared would become an inadvertent endorsement of the camps.
Mr Voronkov is a career Russian diplomat. He was named to his current post at the UN’s office of counter-terrorism in 2017.