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As human rights official visits Xinjiang, data hack appears to show persecution there

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.N.'s top official for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, is in China this week and will visit the western region of Xinjiang. The U.S. and others have accused the Chinese government of genocide and crimes against humanity for the way that Muslim minorities have been treated there. And as the U.N. commissioner's trip was starting, a rights group outside China posted a huge trove of photos and data online purportedly hacked from Chinese police computers in Xinjiang. They say it highlights the extent of the persecution there.

NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch is on the line now. Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So this U.N. trip to Xinjiang - it's rare to see a trip like this, right?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it is. This one's been months in - there's been months of negotiations for this one and a long time coming because the last visit by a U.N. human rights high commissioner to China was 17 years ago.

CHANG: Wow.

RUWITCH: This is going to be a fact-finding trip. Bachelet has reportedly told diplomats ahead of time that it's not going to be an investigation, so she's managing expectations a bit there. Remember, the accusations are pretty grave. Rights groups, Western governments estimate that more than a million Uyghurs and other minorities out in Xinjiang were detained in the name of preemptive counterterrorism starting in around 2017. There're accusations of forced labor, forced sterilization, that religious freedom has been sharply curtailed. The Chinese government denies any of these abuses and says that Xinjiang is a prosperous, secure and happy part of China.

CHANG: Right. The Chinese government continues to deny any abuses, so given that, do we know why China is even letting her in at this point?

RUWITCH: Well, China may hope that this is going to help promote the image that it's a responsible, rule-abiding member of the U.N. community. And without a doubt, the government's going to want the trip to, you know, support, in a way, its own argument that it hasn't done anything bad out in Xinjiang.

CHANG: So it sounds like she might not be able to actually get a true sense of what's going on there.

RUWITCH: Yeah, Xinjiang's always been a tough place to report from. There's lots of surveillance. People are often reluctant to talk for their own security. When the government has organized trips out there for reporters and others, they've been aggressively stage-managed.

You know, on top of that, Bachelet's going to be on an organized trip in a sensitive place and in a bubble, in a COVID-19, you know, bubble for her protection. She's been criticized for going out there at all because of all these restrictions. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday it was a mistake for her to go. And Yaqiu Wang with Human Rights Watch says there are legitimate concerns about what kind of access she'll get out there.

YAQIU WANG: You know, I don't think the high commissioner will be able to see what she should be seeing for such a visit and be able to talk to she should be talking to. So the expectation should be low.

CHANG: I mean, I have to ask again, what's the point of this visit if, in the end, Bachelet might not be able to operate freely or to get a true picture of what's even happening?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it's a valid question. I mean, Wang, again, from Human Rights Watch, says there's still value in the trip. You know, Bachelet should attempt to meet dissidents and the family members of detained Uyghurs when she's out there. Whether she does or not, she should, you know, be transparent and vocal about, you know, what barriers she runs into, if any.

CHANG: And just real quick, tell us a little bit about that police data dump.

RUWITCH: Well, the group is called the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. They posted online what they call the Xinjiang Police Files. It's thousands of photos. There are other documents. And they say they show that Beijing has been lying about the rights violations out in Xinjiang. China's foreign ministry says it's just the latest example of anti-China forces trying to spread lies and smear Xinjiang.

CHANG: That is NPR's John Ruwitch. Thank you, John.

RUWITCH: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.