Michelle Bachelet’s dented reputation—and concerns about new forced labor programs in China

She had repeatedly been warned by activists, NGOs, and governments that traveling to China at Beijing’s invitation was a risk that she should not take: her visit would be instrumentalized by the Chinese; she would never be allowed “unfettered” access to Xinjiang province; she was putting the credibility of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at risk. Having refused for more than two years to release her office’s long-awaited report on allegations of forced labor and discrimination against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, she would make a mockery of—and undermine—the work of her own staff and of all the organizations which have, over the years, been meticulously documenting the egregious human rights violations committed against the Uyghurs, making it impossible not to conclude, as they did, that she had betrayed them. But Michelle Bachelet dismissively swatted away her critics’ objections and went ahead.

“I was not born yesterday, ambassadors […] I am an experienced woman,” she told a group of more than a hundred of diplomats during a virtual meeting on her first day in China, as reported by the South China Morning Post.

That experience was severely tested—and, for some, put in doubt—during her six-day trip to China, widely seen here as a tragic failure. At the OHCHR, which she leads, the disillusionment is profound, bordering on outrage, insiders tell The G|O. In large part, these feelings were reinforced by what many call her disastrous performance during her concluding press conference. Bachelet insisted that her visit was not an investigation, telling the reporters she had “been unable to assess the full scale” of the infamous system of mass-internment of more than a million Uyghurs in camps that Beijing simply calls vocational and educational centers (VETC) and justifies as part of its response to terrorism and poverty in the region. “The government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled,” she said, seemingly accepting Beijing’s affirmation at face-value, adding that she had encouraged Beijing to review its counterterrorism policies to bring them into compliance with international human rights standards.

She praised China’s “tremendous achievements” in human rights, pointing to poverty alleviation programs, thus espousing Beijing’s narrative, and overall she failed to clearly condemn the Chinese government’s repression campaign in Xinjiang. “Zeid would never have gone in the first place or said what she said,” a senior Western diplomat told The G|O, referring to Bachelet’s predecessor. “You expect the UN human rights chief to denounce [abuses], to speak truth to power,” and not to appease.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government was pleased. “Western countries, out of ulterior motives, went to great lengths to disrupt and undercut the High Commissioner’s visit, their plot didn’t succeed,” China’s deputy foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu said as Bachelet was leaving, while a few days later the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian added, “All foreign friends who have visited Xinjiang will come to a just and objective conclusion, like the High Commissioner herself. […] China attaches great importance to the human rights causes of the UN. We are ready to play a bigger role.”

Experts here worry that Bachelet’s global acceptance of Beijing’s narrative about poverty alleviation and her emphasis on economic and social rights to the detriment of individual rights will profoundly weaken the UN human rights system. She has, they say, effectively let the Chinese leadership know that it need not fear any criticism of its behavior from her organization. What is clear is that Bachelet’s personal reputation and the UN’s willingness to hold China to account now both hinge on the release of her office’s long-awaited report.

But China itself may also have concluded that as Western pressure mounts over Beijing’s human rights abuses—the US will start banning all goods from Xinjiang later this month and Germany has recently decided to toughen its own stance—it needs to respond by changing its strategy to deflect the tension. Beijing’s decision to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s convention on forced labor is an indication of the country’s shift as it claims it wants to play a “bigger role” at the UN. Given Beijing’s repeated denunciations of the current multilateral system, this has Western countries worried.

Another illustration of the Chinese leadership’s change in strategy, say human rights defenders, is Beijing’s recent decision to put Ma Xingrui in charge of the Xinjiang region. Widely considered by China watchers as a Chinese Communist Party rising star, Xingrui was until now supervisor of the Shenzhen economic zone.

In a speech in January first reported by Bloomberg, he described his vision for Xinjiang by saying it was crucial to “accelerate the integration of urban and rural development and vigorously develop labor-intensive industries.” Farmers and herdsmen must be able to achieve “stable employment and sustained income growth.” A key part of the new policy calls for investing in a massive job transfer program in which Uyghurs would be moved across the province and the country.

The US and other Western countries, however, are seriously concerned that, when applied to the Uyghurs, such a state-sponsored work program would simply help perpetuate the repression of the Muslim minority and make it more difficult to document. The repression, they say, would continue under the veneer of educational and anti-poverty efforts.

The ILO defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”

For Laura Murphy, Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at Sheffield Hallam University, quoted by Bloomberg, refusing a government-sponsored labor program in the Uyghur region is not an option: “that is what makes it forced labor—that is not a social program.”

Between the OCHCR and the ILO, the forced-labor issue will continue to rage in Geneva.