By Yew Lun Tian and Tony Munroe
BEIJING (Reuters) -Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on Wednesday via video link with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who is on a visit that has drawn criticism from rights groups and which the United States has called a mistake.
While Bachelet’s six-day trip will include a visit to the western region of Xinjiang, where her office said last year it believed mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghur people had been unlawfully detained, mistreated and forced to work, there was no mention of it in either side’s public remarks.
Xi told Bachelet that China’s development of human rights “suits its own national conditions”, and that among the various types of human rights, the rights to subsistence and development were primary for developing countries, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.
“Deviating from reality and copying wholesale the institutional model of other countries will not only fit badly with the local conditions, but also bring disastrous consequences,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.
Bachelet said that her meetings with Xi and other officials had been a valuable opportunity to speak directly about human rights issues.
“For me, it is a priority to engage with the government of China directly, on human rights issues, domestic, regional and global,” she said at the beginning of her meeting with Xi.
“For development, peace and security to be sustainable – locally and across borders – human rights have to be at their core,” she said.
Critics have said they doubted Bachelet would be granted necessary access to make a full assessment of the rights situation in Xinjiang.
Bachelet has called for unfettered access in Xinjiang, but China has said her visit would be conducted in a “closed loop”, referring to a way of isolating people within a “bubble” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
China denies all abuses.
On Tuesday, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said his country would give higher priority to human rights issues in dealing with China, following new media reports on mass detention of Uyghurs between January and July of 2018.
Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China opposed the use of “false information” to smear it and said economic cooperation between China and Germany was mutually beneficial.
“I hope that the German government and politicians will look at it correctly and will not mislead the public to the detriment of their own interests,” Wang said.
Bachelet’s China visit has been fraught since its inception, largely over concern among rights groups and western governments that it could lead to endorsement rather than scrutiny of China’s rights record.
On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said it was “a mistake to agree to a visit under the circumstances”.
The United States has described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.
On Monday, Bachelet told Beijing-based diplomats that her Xinjiang trip was “not an investigation” into China’s rights record but about longer-term engagement with Chinese authorities, three Western diplomats told Reuters.
Some diplomats voiced concern that she would not be given “unhindered and meaningful” access.
“I’m a grown woman,” she responded to those concerns, two diplomats briefed on the call said. “I’m able to read between the lines.”
Bachelet explained that although her access was limited because of COVID, she had set up some meetings with people independently of Chinese authorities. Her office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
China initially denied the existence of any detention camps in Xinjiang but in 2018 said it had set up “vocational training centers” necessary to curb what it said was terrorism, separatism and religious radicalism in Xinjiang.
In 2019, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir said all trainees had “graduated”.
On Monday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi presented Bachelet with a book of Xi’s quotations on human rights.
(Additional reporting by Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Robert Birsel)