UN Human Rights Chief Is Silent on China’s Abuses in Xinjiang, and Scholars Are Fuming

Michelle Bachelet’s statement contradicted what scholars know about China’s atrocities in Xinjiang, 37 experts say in a scathing letter.
UN Human Rights Chief Is Silent on China’s Abuses in Xinjiang, and Scholars Are Fuming
This handout image released by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation last month shows detainees at the Tekes County Detention Centre in the Xinjiang region of western China. Photo: Handout / THE VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM MEMORIAL FOUNDATION / AFP

More than 30 leading scholars of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang said they were “deeply disturbed” by the statement of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet after her controversial visit to China last month.

In a public letter obtained by VICE World News, 37 experts on the western Chinese region said Bachelet’s remarks “ignored and even contradicted” the academic consensus on China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs, in Xinjiang. They have described the abuses, including the extra-judicial detention of an estimated more than 1 million mostly Muslim minorities in the name of fighting terror, as crimes against humanity.


The signatories include two scholars who were consulted by Bachelet’s office prior to her trip. But their findings were not reflected in Bachelet’s remarks in a press conference in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou when she concluded her official visit on May 28.

The joint letter is the strongest criticism of the U.N. so far by scholars, who have learnt of Uyghurs’ alarming disappearance into internment camps since 2017 and called on U.N. officials to investigate in 2018.

Michelle Bachelet (left) attends a virtual meeting with China's President Xi Jinping in Guangzhou on May 25, 2022. Photo: Handout / OHCHR / AFP

Michelle Bachelet (left) attends a virtual meeting with China's President Xi Jinping in Guangzhou on May 25, 2022. Photo: Handout / OHCHR / AFP

As the first U.N. human rights chief to visit China since 2005, Bachelet’s trip in May took years of negotiation with Chinese authorities. But she has come under criticism from Western governments and human rights advocates for her failure to hold China accountable or uncover new information from the six-day visit. 

The U.S. has also expressed concerns about China’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate” her mission. The envoy visited the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar, but no reporter was allowed to accompany her, and her itinerary was tightly controlled by Beijing and kept secret.

Evidence from Chinese state documents, complemented by survivor testimonies and satellite imagery, has offered a detailed picture of what can be credibly called a genocidal program, the scholars wrote in the letter, published in French in Le Monde on Wednesday. 


But instead of condemning China’s policies, Bachelet has lent weight to China’s justification of the internment camps by repeating their narrative and describing them as “vocational training education centers.” 

“High Commissioner Bachelet’s words echo the Chinese state’s claim that their atrocities in Xinjiang are all are part of a ‘counter-terrorism’ effort, a claim that our research and the Chinese state’s own documents show to be false,” they wrote .

They also called on Bachelet to release the U.N.’s report on China’s actions in the region “without political interference or further delay.” 

“It’s a report on an ongoing unprecedented series of crimes against humanity, which I think merits some urgency,” Rian Thum, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester and one of the signatories, told VICE World News. 

The report was originally expected to be released in December, but has been delayed. The U.N. said the report will be updated with findings from the mission and has not provided a date for its release.

Here is the full letter from the Xinjiang scholars to the U.N.:

In the spring of 2017, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Indigenous peoples began quietly disappearing into prisons and internment camps in China’s “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” By the end of that year, this secretive internment program had become obvious to the small community of international scholars who specialize in the study of the region, and in 2018 we wrote to United Nations officials urging an investigation.

Four years on, we are still awaiting a report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on this issue. In the intervening years, we have conducted rigorous studies of China’s policies in Xinjiang (or Eastern Turkistan, as it is known to much of its indigenous population) and found that China is committing crimes against humanity at a scale that extends far beyond the mass internment program.

We are grateful that the OHCHR, under the direction of Michelle Bachelet, consulted with some members of our community of academic experts on the region before her visit to China and Xinjiang last month. However, we were deeply disturbed by her official statement of May 28, which ignored and even contradicted the academic findings that our colleagues, including two signatories to this letter, provided.

It is rare that an academic field arrives at the level of consensus that specialists in the study of Xinjiang have reached. While we disagree on some questions of why Beijing is enacting its atrocities in Xinjiang, we are unanimous in our understanding of what it is that the Chinese state is doing on the ground.

This extraordinary consensus is a result of the unprecedented quantity of evidence that the Chinese state has provided in its own documents, some of them leaked but most of them publicly released on the Chinese internet. This evidence, complemented by survivor testimonies and satellite imagery, offers a detailed picture of what can be credibly called a genocidal program.

The evidence clearly shows that Beijing has indiscriminately placed an estimated one million or more indigenous inhabitants of Xinjiang into various forms of extra-legal confinement, not just in the internment camps, but also in pre-trial detention centers and formal prisons. Many of the internment and indoctrination camps have recently been closed, though there is no evidence that the system has been shut down entirely. More importantly, a substantial portion of internees from now-closed camps have been transferred to formal prisons after sham trials, while others have been placed in forced labor programs. Torture, rape, and other mistreatment are rife within the prisons, detention centers, and camps.

At the same time, Uyghur children have been separated from their parents in increasing numbers, moved to boarding schools where they are raised to speak and act as Han Chinese. By 2018, the Chinese government reported that they had achieved a boarding rate of roughly 50% in Xinjiang’s middle-school population. Uyghur women have been subjected to systematic forced sterilization, birth control, and abortion to achieve what Beijing calls “population optimization,” while Han Chinese citizens have been encouraged to have more children.

Han Chinese settlers have been moved into the region by the thousands, while the state has expropriated Uyghur land and destroyed Uyghur towns, often moving inhabitants to non-voluntary labor in factories outside of Uyghur-majority areas. Religious practices as simple as owning the Qur’an or avoiding pork and alcohol have been criminalized. Authorities have bulldozed key historical monuments, pilgrimage sites, mosques, and Uyghur graveyards.

In her statement, High Commissioner Bachelet not only failed to condemn these policies, but she declined to mention any of them beyond the mass internment program, which she referred to using Beijing’s latest euphemism, “vocational training education centers.” Instead, Bachelet asked Beijing to “undertake a review of all counter terrorism and deradicalization policies to ensure they fully comply with international human rights standards.”

High Commissioner Bachelet’s words echo the Chinese state’s claim that their atrocities in Xinjiang are all are part of a “counter-terrorism” effort, a claim that our research and the Chinese state’s own documents show to be false. Beijing’s state media has, predictably, presented her comments as vindication.

The information that our profession has provided to the OHCHR is not the result of just one or two researchers’ work. It is the unanimous consensus of the entire community of scholars who are independent of the Chinese state and have devoted their lives to the study of the region. We urge the OHCHR to fully incorporate this knowledge into its long-delayed report on China’s actions in Xinjiang, and we urge the OHCHR to release the report without political interference or further delay.

Björn Alpermann, Professor, University of Würzburg

Ildiko Beller-Hann, Associate Professor Emerita, University of Copenhagen

Gardner Bovingdon, Associate Professor, Indiana University

Darren Byler, Assistant Professor, Simon Fraser University

Kevin Carrico, Senior Lecturer, Monash University

Sandrine Catris, Assistant Professor, Augusta University

William Clark, Adjunct Professor, Northwest University

Michael Clarke, Senior Fellow, Australian Defence College, and Adjunct Professor, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

Tom Cliff, Senior Lecturer, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University

Michael Dillon, Professor of History, Affiliate, Lau China Institute, King’s College, London

June Teufel Dreyer, Professor of Political Science, University of Miami, Florida

Arienne Dwyer, Professor, University of Kansas/University of Washington

Magnus Fiskesjö, Associate Professor, Cornell University

Vanessa Frangville, Senior Lecturer, Université libre de Bruxelles

Timothy Grose, Associate Professor of China Studies, Rose Hulman Institute of Technology

Chris Hann, Professor Emeritus, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Halle, Germany, and Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, UK

Rachel A. Harris, Professor of Ethnomusicology, SOAS University of London

Aziz Isa Elkun, Researcher, SOAS University of London

Justin Jacobs, Professor, American University

Thierry Kellner, Lecturer, Université libre de Bruxelles

Ondrej Klimes, Research Fellow, Czech Academy of Sciences

James Leibold, Professor, La Trobe University

Jonathan Lipman, Professor Emeritus, Mount Holyoke College

Victor H. Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania

James McMurray, Lecturer, University of Sussex

Mukaddas Mijit, Postdoctoral Fellow, Université libre de Bruxelles

James Millward, Professor, Georgetown University

Laura T. Murphy, Professor, Sheffield Hallam University

Alexandre Papas, Chargé de recherche, Centre National de la recherche scientifique, France

Dilnur Reyhan, French National Institute for Oriental Studies/European Uyghur Institute

Sean R. Roberts, Professor of International Affairs, The George Washington University

Eric Schluessel, Assistant Professor, The George Washington University

Guldana Salimjan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Simon Fraser University

Joanne Smith Finley, Reader in Chinese Studies, Newcastle University

Rian Thum, Senior Lecturer, University of Manchester

Sabine Trebinjac, Directrice de recherche, Centre National de la recherche scientifique, France

Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow in China Studies, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation

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