Another Potemkin Visit? Rethinking the UN Human Rights Chief’s Upcoming Trip to Xinjiang

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 9

Paramilitary police watch a woman and children in Urumqi, Xinjiang (Source: RFA)


In March, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet announced an agreement with China for a May visit, which includes access to Xinjiang. The exact date for the visit has yet to be determined, but recent reports indicate it is due to take place before the end of this month, which will make Bachelet the first UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit China in 17 years (China Daily, May 11). Negotiations were stalled for years with Bachelet first indicating intent to report on Xinjiang in a 2018 request for unhindered access to “all regions of China” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), September 10, 2018). At the end of April, a UN advance team arrived in Guangzhou to quarantine before traveling to Xinjiang to lay the groundwork for Bachelet’s visit (South China Morning Post (SCMP), April 25.

Unrealistic Expectations?

Expectations are high as Bachelet has refrained from publicly expressing strong concern about China’s human rights record. She has still yet to release her highly anticipated report on grave human rights violations in Xinjiang. The delay is suspected to be due to political pressure from China, which demanded that the report’s publication be deferred until after the Beijing Winter Olympics in February (SCMP, January 22). [1] In contrast, her predecessor, former High Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein, renounced a second mandate in order to avoid having to “bend the knee in supplication” before the Security Council’s members, including China, which he had criticized for its poor human rights record (People’s Daily, February 17, 2016). The visit also follows an unprecedented call from over 50 Special Procedures, the Human Rights Council’s independent experts, for “renewed attention on the human rights situation in the country, particularly in light of the moves against the people of the Hong Kong SAR, minorities of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and human rights defenders across the country” (OHCHR, June 26, 2020). In addition, negotiations for a Xinjiang visit by the Ambassadors of the European Union member states in China have also been stalled for several years and various joint statements, mainly from Western countries, have called for a visit with unfettered access to the region (SCMP, March 17, 2021; Xinhua February 21, 2021; Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the UN, October 6, 2020).

The high expectations for Bachelet’s trip will be difficult to fulfill given the precedent that China has set for past visits to Xinjiang by foreign officials. As Chinese state media highlights “Bachelet is not the first, and will definitely not be the last senior politician from overseas to visit this region” (Global Times, March 9). Since the end of 2018, more than 1,200 officials from international organizations, diplomats, journalists and religious leaders from over 100 countries and regions have visited Xinjiang (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, April 14, 2021). These visits are fully orchestrated tours. Foreign officials lack freedom of movement or access to the population apart from carefully chosen interlocutors. As a result, such visits have been widely used by Chinese and aligned countries’ propaganda to counter criticism of China’s Xinjiang policies (Xinhua, April 3, 2021; The Express Tribune, April 3, 2021; People’s Daily, February 24, 2021; Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 10 January, 2019). Some journalists participating in these organized tours have challenged authorities and pushed them out of the comfort zone of this well-oiled machine [2]. However, this has not changed Beijing’s modus operandi that is also applied for foreign dignitaries’ visits to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which serve a similar propaganda purpose (WION, November 12, 2020; Australian Embassy China, August 2013). [3]

It is important to note that for UN experts visiting China, unfettered access has never genuinely been on the table. China is not among the 120 countries that have issued a standing invitation to the Special Procedures. In the last decade, despite many requests, the Chinese government has permitted only five visits in mandates with which Beijing is aligned, pertaining to rights to food, discrimination against women and girls, foreign debt, extreme poverty and care of older persons. During his 2016 visit, the former Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, faced significant impediments to executing his work as an independent expert. According to Alston: “the Government’s view that it was fully responsible for determining every detail of the agenda of the visit reflects a misunderstanding of the role of special rapporteurs as independent experts” (Human Rights Council, March 28, 2017). A visit by the Special Rapporteur on rights of persons with disabilities has been postponed since 2020 due to China’s COVID-19 restrictions (UN Geneva, 3 March, 2021). Furthermore, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has no office in Beijing due to China’s refusal to allow one. These local offices normally play an important role in preparing official visits, especially in establishing contacts with human rights defenders on the ground.

Conditions are unlikely to be different for Bachelet’s forthcoming Xinjiang visit. Indeed, Beijing has repeated that it would only allow for a ‘friendly visit’ by the High Commissioner aimed at ‘promoting exchanges and cooperation’, and not ‘a so-called ‘investigation’ with presumption of guilt’ (PRC Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva, December 10, 2021). While Bachelet is welcomed to visit Xinjiang, as “all unbiased foreigners” are, China expects that her office will “respect the sovereignty of all countries as well as the rights and development path independently chosen by countries in light of their national conditions” (Global Times, February 28). Furthermore, Bachelet has already noted that ‘preparations will have to account for COVID-19 regulations’ (People’s Daily, March 9). China is currently experiencing a peak of COVID-19 infections, which has only intensified the already highly restrictive measures implemented under the ‘zero-Covid’ policy. Shanghai is struggling to get out of a prolonged lockdown and Beijing striving to avoid a full shutdown. Considering the Chinese government’s record of instrumentalizing the pandemic, among other public health and safety issues to close sensitive areas, this requirement will certainly have an impact on Bachelet’s visit (China Highlights, March 3). Notably, it remains unclear why Beijing has agreed to allow the High Commissioner’s visit to the country to go forward at this particular moment, and Bachelet has not provided any indication that she has attained unhindered access to Xinjiang, but that appears unlikely, especially as Beijing has signaled no turnaround in its policies.  For example, on a recent Xinjiang inspection tour, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang stressed the need for greater Sinicization of Islam (Center for Advanced China Research, March 18).

Bachelet’s Visit is Political: Time to Talk Human Rights Politics

Considering the obstacles and inflated expectations, how can Bachelet’s visit still make a difference? The visit takes place in the context of escalating tensions between China and a number of Western countries that are critical human rights record. In response, Beijing has accused the U.S. and other countries of politicizing human rights (China Brief, March 25). The Chinese Foreign Ministry has already stated that it strongly “rejects political tactics” surrounding the visit and opposes “certain countries’ use of this event for political manipulation” (Global Times, March 9). Chinese state media has followed suit on blaming the politicization of human rights for the current situation. For example, an editorial in the Global Times asserts that  “even if there are no Xinjiang-related issues, the US and some Western countries will fabricate other rumors to constantly smear China. In essence, these countries use human rights as a pretext to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs out of geopolitical purposes. They are seeking hegemony in the name of human rights” (Global Times, March 9, 2022). Simultaneously, Beijing will certainly attempt to showcase “a beautiful, open, confident and richly-endowed Xinjiang that enjoys stable development, solidarity and harmony” and that is “at its golden time with the most rapid and stable development in history” (PRC Permanent Mission at the UN in Geneva, March 2, 2020). China’s accusations of Western politicization of human rights are clearly intended to deflect any kind of criticism of its record in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere. However, instead of ignoring the political dimension of human rights, Bachelet can address the political dynamics surrounding her visit by being transparent on pressures related to the publication of her report and her to visit China.

The obstacles to obtain unfettered access for Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang illustrates the various challenges that China poses to the post-1945 human rights regime. [4] In recent years, China has increasingly called into question key principles on which this regime is based, and has instead promoted alternate concepts such as “win-win cooperation in human rights” and “people-centered development” (State Council, August 12, 2021; Xinhua, March 24, 2021). While these efforts have been interpreted as China working to weaken the conventional, post-1945 understanding of human rights, it is necessary to recall that this understanding has been contentious from its very inception. In particular, contributions from Marxist and leftist trends on the limits of human rights as articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Right have been dispensed in favor of a human rights project that aligns with “the morals of the market”. [5] This historical background has  specific resonance in the current context in which China continues to identify itself with “Marxist human rights” (State Council, June 24, 2021). Certainly, China’s concept of Marxist human rights is not without contradictions as well as instrumentalization, particularly following the 1979 Economic Reforms and debates about how to qualify China’s political economy. [6] Nevertheless, the difficulties that the High Commissioner for Human Rights is currently facing are an example of the persistent questioning of the legitimacy of a human rights regime that is seen as static, and shaped by power struggles at this particular historical juncture. [7]

The risks of politicizing human rights should not prevent us from acknowledging the contentiousness of the concept. Bachelet has the opportunity to engage with politicization in order to ensure that the interests of the Uyghur minority remain the focal point of her visit. For example, in the report following her visit, an assessment of the dynamics of negotiations that have surrounded it would shed light on practices that only serve national interests. Furthermore, it would be interesting to reflect on the expectations of countries calling for the High Commissioner’s visit to Xinjiang while knowing the heavy precedent of Potemkin visits, and to consider what these countries have done themselves to ensure the coherence of their human rights policy. Bachelet can also acknowledge Xinjiang’s development while stressing that material well-being, and economic, social and cultural rights are not equivalent [8]. She can also condemn  China’s gross human rights violations while simultaneously conceding how partial the human rights advocacy of certain countries is. There is no silver bullet to solve the tensions between human rights claim to universality and how profoundly political they are. But as Bachelet’s chances to get unfettered access are not high, she can still tackle political reasons that made such access impossible by engaging on these issues.

Christelle Genoud is Research Associate at King’s College London, where she works on the project Academic freedom, globalised scholarship and the rise of authoritarian China. Previously, she served as Human Security Advisor at the Embassy of Switzerland in Beijing, where she was in charge of the human rights portfolio. She has worked on human rights for the United Nations, NGOs, and academia, at headquarters and in the field in Colombia, Palestine, and Honduras. She holds a PhD on finance and human rights from the University of Lausanne and a Master in Asian Studies from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.


[1] On the day Bachelet announced an agreement with the Chinese government has been reached for a visit, nearly 200 NGOs wrote an open letter arguing that the release of the report would “send a message to victims and perpetrators alike that no state, no matter how powerful, is above international law or the robust independent scrutiny of your office.”  See “Open letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

OHCHR report on grave human rights violations in Xinjiang can wait no longer,” March 8, 2022,

Some NGOs have stated that for Bachelet’s visit to be meaningful, it is crucial that she publishes her report on grave human rights violations in Xinjiang beforehand. See “What to expect from the UN Human Rights Office’s visit to China?” SWI,

In addition, a call from human rights NGOs spelling out core minimum conditions for the visit to be credible includes the statement: “Release the OHCHR report on serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, the Uyghur region, promptly and ahead of her visit to China, and brief the Human Rights Council on its contents, as a matter of urgency. This will assist to ensure that negotiations regarding a visit cannot be used as a tactic to further unacceptably delay the release of a critical report and will also assist to ensure that any subsequent visit to China is substantive and meaningful.” See “UN High Commissioner must uphold principled and coherent response to China’s human rights crisis,” Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2022,

[2] See “Inside China’s ‘thought transformation’ camps,” BBC News, June 18, 2019,

[3] For a discussion on the dynamics around visiting Tibet as an official see: “Visiting Tibet: A conversation with Christelle Genoud”, a “Tibet Talk” conference by International Campaign for Tibet Europe, December 1, 2021,

[4] See Rana Siu Inboden, China and the International Human Rights Regime: 1982-2017 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021); Rosemary Foot, China, the UN, and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image (Oxford, UK: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2020); Sophie Richardson, “China’s Influence on the Global Human Rights System: Assessing China’s Growing Role in the World,” Brookings Institution, September 2020,

[5] See Mark Goodale, Reinventing human rights (California: Stanford University Press, 2022); Jessica Whyte, The Morals of the Market. Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, New York: Verso, 2019).

[6] See “Chinese State Capitalism: Diagnosis and Prognosis,” CSIS, October 7, 2021,

[7] For more explanation on the contingency of the post-1945 human rights regime, see Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York W.W. Norton and Company Press: 2007);  Mark Goodale, Reinventing human rights (California: Stanford University Press, 2022); Steven L.B. Jensen, The Making of International Human Rights (Cambridge University Press: 2016).

[8] See the report of the former Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alson, following his visit to China:; and Eva Pils, Human Rights in China: A Social Practice in the Shadows of Authoritarianism (Polity:2017).