China said Friday it welcomes a visit by the U.N. rights commissioner to Xinjiang so long as it is an “exchange,” not an investigation — as human rights groups fear Beijing’s offer is a ruse to avoid scrutiny of abuses in the region during the Olympics.
Responding to questions about a possible visit from Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said an invitation had been issued long ago, adding that “the purpose of the trip is to promote exchange and cooperation, not for an investigation.”
Bachelet’s spokesman Rupert Colville said at a U.N. briefing Friday that talks were underway for a trip, but “the parameters of that visit are still very much under discussion,” according to Reuters.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post was the first to report on the possibility that the visit would go forward but only after the Games have concluded, thereby delaying the release of a long-awaited U.N. report on alleged abuses in the region. The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 4 in Beijing.
International human rights groups have called on the United Nations to release its findings on human rights abuses in Xinjiang as soon as possible and have responded with dismay at the reports of further holdups. They accuse China of running vast internment facilities and systems of mass surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghur, Kazakh and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the northwestern region.
The U.N.’s report is expected to be its first comprehensive ruling on a campaign of mass internment, birth control and forced assimilation that Western governments, including the United States, have called genocide.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nongovernmental organization, voiced concern on Twitter that the reported visit was “just a clever ploy” to prevent Bachelet from releasing her findings, adding “please issue the upcoming report … as soon as possible.”
As the Opening Ceremonies approach, pressure has mounted on sponsors and the International Olympic Committee to use the Games to confront the Chinese Communist Party on its bid to crush dissent and stifle civil society from Xinjiang to Tibet to Hong Kong.
A coalition of 243 international groups on Thursday called for more countries to join the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics and for athletes and sponsors not to legitimize abuses.
“It’s not possible for the Olympic Games to be a ‘force for good,’ as the International Olympic Committee claims, while the host government is committing grave crimes in violation of international law,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The possibility of further delays to Bachelet’s report on Xinjiang added to concerns by rights groups of a missed opportunity to use the Olympics to hold Beijing accountable. Discussions over a U.N. visit to Xinjiang began in 2018 after evidence mounted of a vast network of detention facilities in the region.
China denies accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and describes the security campaign as necessary to combat “extremism” and violence. It claims that facilities provide voluntary education and training and not detention camps.
As part of a global propaganda effort to rebuff criticism of the crackdown, China has organized carefully orchestrated tours of the facilities where Western journalists were met with unusual scenes like a supposedly spontaneous rendition, in English, of the children’s song “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”
“The spectacle of the Olympics cannot cover up genocide,” Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said in the rights groups’ joint statement. “It’s hard to understand why anyone feels it’s even possible to celebrate international friendship and ‘Olympic values’ in Beijing this year.”
Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.