BEIJING—”Highly choreographed” tours to Xinjiang organized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are misleading and propagate false narratives about the troubled region, a U.S. official said, after China announced plans to invite European envoys to visit.
China has been stepping up a push to dispel growing criticism from international governments and among rights groups about its mass “vocational training” detention program in heavily Muslim Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
Experts and U.S. government officials have pointed to evidence that China is operating internment camps for Uyghurs, also spelled Uighur, and other minority ethnic groups who live in Xinjiang, though the government calls them “vocational training centers” and says they address the genuine need for education to prevent extremist thinking and violence that the regime says caused mass riots in the region over the last decade.
China’s foreign ministry said late last week it would invite Beijing-based European diplomats to visit soon. Diplomatic sources said the so-far informal invitation had gone specifically to ambassadors and was planned for this week.
A U.S. government official, asked by Reuters if the U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, had been invited to visit Xinjiang, said there were no meetings or visits to announce.
“Highly choreographed and chaperoned government-led tours in Xinjiang have propagated false narratives and obfuscated the realities of China’s ongoing human rights abuses in the region,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The visit this month would be the first by a large group of Western diplomats to the region since international concern about Xinjiang‘s security clampdown began intensifying last year. Hundreds have died in unrest in Xinjiang in recent years which Beijing blames on terrorists but overseas Uyghur groups blame on the communist regime’s coercive and restrictive ethnic policies.
Several groups of diplomats from other countries have already been brought to Xinjiang on tightly scripted trips since late December to visit the facilities.
There have been two visits by groups including European diplomats to Xinjiang this year. One was a small group of EU diplomats, and the other by a group of diplomats from a broader mix of countries, including missions from Greece, Hungary and North African, and Southeast Asian states.
A Reuters journalist visited on a government-organized trip in January.
The U.S. official described what was happening in Xinjiang as “a highly repressive campaign,” and said claims that the facilities were “humane job-training centers” or “boarding schools” were not credible.
“We will continue to call on China to end these counterproductive policies, free all those who have been arbitrarily detained, and cease efforts to coerce members of its Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate.”
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department said the CCP’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang marked the worst human rights abuses “since the 1930s.”
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has weighed sanctions against senior Chinese officials in Xinjiang, including Xinjiang‘s top official, Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo.
Late last year, more than a dozen ambassadors from Western countries, including France, Britain, Germany and the EU’s top envoy in Beijing, wrote to the government to seek a meeting with Chen to discuss their concerns about the rights situation.
Two diplomatic sources told Reuters on March 23 that government officials had said a meeting with Chen was not being offered to the European ambassadors, and that the trip was not to discuss human rights but to talk about China-Europe cooperation on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) project.
It remains unclear whether they would accept the invitation, though the two sources said it was unlikely.
The European Union’s embassy in Beijing has declined to comment on the invitation.
Xi is currently in Europe on a state visit to Italy, Monaco and France. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang goes to Brussels next month for a China-EU summit.
EU leaders said on Friday the bloc must recognize that China is as much a competitor as a partner.
By Ben Blanchard