HONG KONG -- The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday kicked off a landmark visit to China's controversial Xinjiang region, as rights groups warn that anything but unfettered access could damage her office's credibility.
The six-day tour comes after years of negotiations with the Chinese government to let Bachelet visit the western region where rights organizations say at least 1 million people have been imprisoned in internment camps, facing torture and forced labor.
Media reports and activists have also said that the region's Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are subject to arbitrary detention and forced sterilization, allegations that the U.S. and several Western countries have described as amounting to genocide.
Beijing denies the claims outright and says the camps are used as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism in the Muslim-majority region.
Bachelet was to deliver a speech to university students in the southern city of Guangzhou before leaving for Xinjiang with planned stops in the cities of Kashgar and Urumqi.
The visit would include discussions "on a range of domestic, regional and global human rights issues," Bachelet's office said this week.
On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin confirmed Bachelet's arrival in China and said that she would hold "broad exchanges with people from all sectors."
"The purpose of the visit is to promote exchange and play a positive role in the cause of global human rights," Wang told reporters.
Critics fear the government will not meet Bachelet's demand for full access and instead will put her on a heavily structured tour, limiting her movements and putting her team under strict surveillance.
"Bachelet's long-delayed visit to Xinjiang is a critical opportunity to address human rights violations in the region, but it will also be a running battle against Chinese government efforts to cover up the truth," said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International's secretary-general. "The U.N. must take steps to mitigate against this and resist being used to support blatant propaganda."
Bachelet's office has been in talks with Beijing since 2018, when the claims of widespread rights abuses first emerged. Beijing initially dismissed claims about internment camps, but later acknowledged their existence and insisted they were training facilities.
Overseas relatives of Uyghurs who are missing or imprisoned have called on the U.N. to find their loved ones.
Mamutjan Abdurehim, a Uyghur living in Australia, has no information on the whereabouts of his wife who was arrested in Kashgar three years ago, and hoped Bachelet would try to visit his daughter there. He hasn't spoke with her since 2017.
"The High Commissioner's office hasn't reached out to any rights organization or direct victims. We don't know anything about her plans or how the trip is going to play out... whether or not she will succumb to Chinese government demands," Abdurehim told Nikkei Asia.
The U.N. agency compiled a report on alleged rights violations in Xinjiang but has yet to publish it despite repeated requests to do so by nearly 200 NGOs. In December, Bachelet had said it would be released "within a few weeks."
The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a network of legislators from around the world, has warned that China may use an ongoing coronavirus outbreak to keep a tight leash on Bachelet's visit.
"The stakes are therefore very high," the group said in a statement. "Should the High Commissioner fail to obtain the necessary access for a meaningful investigation, the credibility of the office could suffer lasting damage, and the ability for the UNHCHR to secure meaningful future investigations may well be compromised.
"COVID restrictions must not be deployed as a reason to excuse the PRC (People's Republic of China) for failing to allow a meaningful investigation. IPAC stands ready to act swiftly in case the visit will be turned into a sham by PRC authorities."
Washington has banned imports from the region, forcing corporations to scrutinize supply chains linked to products made in Xinjiang, which produces 20% of the world's cotton and 45% of all silicon usable in solar cells.
American chipmaker Intel apologized to China in December for telling its suppliers not to source from Xinjiang following a backlash from netizens and state media. The incident came on the heels of consumers boycotting H&M for expressing concern over reports of forced labor in the region.