China is to invite Beijing-based European diplomats to visit Xinjiang, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday, furthering its outreach to fend off criticism about a deradicalization program.
The visit would be the first by a large group of Western diplomats to the region as China faces growing opprobrium from Western capitals and rights groups for setting up facilities that UN experts describe as detention centers holding more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.
Several diplomatic sources said that the invitation to visit by the end of this month had been issued informally, specifically to ambassadors, with one source describing it as a “sounding out” of interest, and the government had not explicitly said who they would meet or where they would go.
It is also not clear if the Europeans would accept the invitation, or how many of their diplomats or ambassadors would go.
Last year, more than a dozen ambassadors from Western countries wrote to the government to seek a meeting with Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo (陳全國) to discuss their concerns about the rights situation.
Diplomats say that the government never responded to that letter, aside from publicly denouncing it as a breach of diplomatic norms.
It was not clear if a meeting with Chen would be on the agenda.
“In order to increase the European side’s understanding of Xinjiang’s achievements at economic and social development, and promote bilateral exchanges and cooperation, China plans in the near term to invite European envoys based in China to visit Xinjiang,” the ministry said in a statement.
The date and other details were still being worked out, it added.
“Hearing something for 100 times is not as good as seeing it for yourself,” the statement said.
Beijing has been ramping up its efforts in defense of its measures in Xinjiang, which it says are aimed at stemming the threat of Islamic militancy. It calls the camps vocational training centers.
China “believes that through this trip, European envoys based in China will be able to personally experience the real situation of Xinjiang’s calm, order and peace, and the happy lives of all its people,” the ministry said.
Last week, the US Department of State said that China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang marked the worst human rights abuses “since the 1930s.”
Some diplomats briefed on the situation said there was concern the European diplomats could be used for propaganda purposes, pointing to photographs and stories in state media about visits by other foreign envoys to Xinjiang.
“There’s no point in going if we’re just going to be portrayed as supporting the camps,” one diplomat said.
EU foreign ministers on Monday raised the Uighur issue with Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) at a lunch in Brussels, sources said.
While Wang was keen to focus on a list of issues of cooperation and agreement, EU ministers underlined the issue of human rights and the Uighurs, asking for explanations about why the people were being held and on reports of crackdowns on Muslims, sources said.
One EU diplomat said that Wang’s reply was “not satisfactory.”
China is a “big country,” so it could not be avoided that some individuals complain about treatment, and measures were not against Uighurs, but against extremists, the diplomat quoted Wang as saying.
“He was puzzled about why we are worried about it,” they said.
The ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wang’s Xinjiang discussions in Brussels.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) is to visit Brussels next month for a China-EU summit.
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 several countries, including EU members Hungary and Greece.
There have also been at least two other trips to Xinjiang for foreign diplomats.
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