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US, Chinese diplomats square off on Twitter over human rights, jailed Uyghur

Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield attends virtual Global COVID-19 Summit, Sept. 22, 2021, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House photo by Erin Scott)
April 23, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield sparked a social media spat with her Chinese counterpart on Wednesday after she called on the head of the U.N. Human Rights Council to release an overdue report on rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

In a tweet, Thomas-Greenfield urged Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, to release the report on Xinjiang, which Bachelet previously said would be finished in September 2021.

“And let’s be clear: any visit by the High Commissioner to China must have unhindered and unfettered access,” Thomas-Greenfield tweeted, referring to Bachelet’s upcoming visit to China.

Bachelet announced in March that she had reached an agreement with the Chinese government for a visit “foreseen to take place in May” to China, including the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). No dates have been announced.

In response, the spokesperson of Chinese mission to the U.N. tweeted that, “China welcomes the visit by @mbachele including a trip to Xinjiang. This is a normal exchange between two sides. There is no place for political manipulation and malicious pressure. Such indiscreet remarks only reveal the US intention to set up obstacles to disrupt the visit.”

A second tweet said, “To some U.S. politicians who are obsessed with making lies: STOP turning a blind eye to the human rights violations in your own country. Save your own people from desperate racism, violence and inequality. Smearing and defaming China cannot cover or divert your failure.”

Bachelet first announced that her office sought an unfettered access to the Uyghur region in September 2018, shortly after she became the U.N.’s top human rights official. But the trip has been delayed over questions about her freedom of movement through the region.

International rights groups have said that Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang must be independent and unhindered to be credible.

Bachelet’s office is under pressure from rights activists to issue the overdue report on alleged serious rights violations by Chinese authorities who target Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in the XUAR.

In March, about 200 human rights groups urged Bachelet to make the report public without delay.

Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others have been held in a vast network of internment camps operated by the Chinese government under the pretext of preventing religious extremism and terrorism among the mostly Muslim groups.

The U.S. government and the legislatures of several Western countries have declared that China’s maltreatment of the Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in Xinjiang constitutes genocide and crimes against humanity.

‘A political pawn’

Thomas-Greenfield’s tweet followed a meeting on Wednesday with the family Gulshan Abbas, a Uyghur physician detained for more than three years in an internment camp in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region.

“Just met with the family of Dr. Gulshan Abbas, a Uyghur medical doctor who’s been unjustly detained in China,” Thomas-Greenfield tweeted. “The U.S. will continue to push for her safety and release — and speak out against PRC [People’s Republic of China] atrocities toward Uyghurs and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups.”

On Sept. 11, 2018, Chinese police took Gulshan Abbas, now 59, from her home to one of the region’s camps. Her family, including her sister, Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur American activist who is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for Uyghurs based in Washington, D.C., later learned that Gulshan had been sentenced in March 2019 to 20 years in prison on false charges.

Rushan has said that her sister was detained on trumped-up “terrorism” charges after she spoke out against the Chinese Communist Party (CPP).

Gulshan’s daughter, Ziba Murat, told RFA on Thursday that her mother was a “nonpolitical, kind, generous person and gentle grandmother” with chronic health issues.

“As a health care provider, she devoted her life providing medical treatments for people suffering from illnesses/disease,” Murat said. “The CCP defiled my mother’s name as if she is a political pawn. My mother is a law-abiding and caring human being, deserving of dignity.”

In response to the Thomas-Greenfield’s tweet, the Chinese mission account tweeted: “Q: Who is Gulshan Abbas? A: a criminal sentenced to jail for crimes of participating in a terrorist organization, aiding terrorist activities. It is common sense to respect the rule of law. Time to stop making yourself a laughing stock.”

That prompted Rushan Abbas to join in the exchange: “Did I make my sister up or is she in prison? Your claims have 0 credibility. 1st #China denied the existence of my sister (see) & called me a liar, saying I stole images of others. Now they falsely link her to ‘terrorism.’”

In reference to the upcoming visit to China by Bachelet of the U.N., 56 civil society organizations on Tuesday issued a statement laying out certain conditions that must be met in order for the visit to be credible, including the release of the overdue report on serious human rights violations in Xinjiang.

They also demanded that Bachelet meet with independent civil society groups, human rights defenders and diaspora groups before leaving for China and to set up unsupervised meetings with human rights defenders and others who have been forcibly disappeared or who have been arbitrarily detained.

The groups also said they were concerned that Bachelet has remained silent on the human rights crisis in Tibet, in contrast with her predecessors.

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a Germany-based Uyghur activist group that signed on to the statement, said Bachelet also has a responsibility to meet with Uyghur groups and survivors to hear directly from them before her visit to China.

“Engagement with the affected communities must be a priority for her and her office,” WUC president Dolkun Isa said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Thursday issued a letter to Claude Heller, chair of the U.N. Committee Against Torture, urging him to release a review of China’s actions.

“The human rights situation in China has demonstrably worsened since the committee’s last review in 2015, particularly in the XUAR, which prompted the United States government and policymakers of multiple countries to determine that Chinese authorities have committed genocide or crimes against humanity against Turkic Muslim and other minorities in the region,” the letter says.