Uyghur Athlete Lights Olympic Cauldron, Sparking International Debate

China has been widely accused of trying to “distract” the world from human rights violations perpetrated against Uyghurs by choosing a Uyghur athlete to light the Olympic flame. Dilnigar Ilhamjan, also known by the Sinicized name Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a little-known 20-year-old cross-country skier, became the face of Friday’s opening ceremonies when she lit the Olympic cauldron alongside Nordic combined competitor Zhao Jiawen, whose ethnicity is Han Chinese. Dilnigar (see details on Uyghur naming conventions here) is the only Uyghur among China’s 176 winter Olympians, and received an honor usually bestowed on higher-profile athletes. The final 2008 Beijing Olympics torchbearer, for example, was Li Ning, a three-time Olympic gold medalist gymnast and billionaire entrepreneur. The move was widely perceived as the Chinese government’s attempt to thumb its nose at an international diplomatic boycott of the Games, and a repudiation of other protests precipitated by China’s persecution of Uyghurs. At the Associated Press, John Leicester reported on international and domestic reactions to Dilnigar’s selection as the final torchbearer:

The pictures of Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skier, holding the torch with Zhao Jiwen, a skier from China’s dominant Han majority — both of them all smiles — reminded [U.S.-based human rights lawyer Rayhan Asat, whose brother Ekpar Asat is among more than 1 million Uyghurs that China has imprisoned,] of the half-Jewish fencer, Helene Mayer, who competed for Germany at the 1936 Summer Olympics that Adolf Hitler hosted in Berlin.

[…] “That was very, very much a deliberate choice,” said Darren Byler, an assistant professor of international studies at Canada’s Simon Fraser University who has written extensively about the camps. “I think it should be read as China saying we are not backing away from our stance on what we’re doing in Xinjiang and we don’t really care what the world thinks about it.”

[…] “Don’t magnify or politicize this kind of issue,” [Wang Yang, a Beijing resident interviewed in a park near the Birds Nest Stadium,] said. “We should separate sports and politics, enjoy the Olympics wholeheartedly, and talk less about politics.” [Source]

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian insisted that “choosing a Uygur [sic] athlete to be a torchbearer at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony reflects that China’s policy of promoting winter sports and improving people’s health is benefiting people of all ethnic groups, and that China is a big family of ethnic groups.” Many knowledgeable observers did not agree with his framing. A spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur advocacy group headquartered in Germany, characterized Dilnigar’s selection as “shocking and hugely insensitive […] when there is an ongoing genocide.”

Dilnigar hails from Altay, Xinjiang. Chinese officials often claim that the region is the birthplace of winter sports due to 10,000-year-old cave paintings that show hunters on skis. In 2020, Dilnigar was lauded by the head of China’s General Administration of Sport for her hard work in training and political study sessions. Despite the intense international interest in her, Dilnigar has yet to speak to the international media. The day after lighting the Olympic torch, Dilnigar competed in the women’s skiathlon, in which she finished 43rd. After the event, the woman of the moment slipped away from assembled international and Chinese media. At The Wall Street Journal, Liza Lin and Elaine Yu wrote about Dilnigar’s extensive interviews with Chinese state media outlets and her disappearance from the spotlight less than 24 hours after her star turn:

Afterward, Ms. Yilamujiang and the three other Chinese athletes competing in the event slipped away, leaving more than a dozen Chinese and foreign journalists waiting for more than an hour in frigid temperatures.

[…] “That moment will encourage me every day for the rest of my life,” Ms. Yilamujiang told China’s official news agency Xinhua on Sunday, it reported. “I was so excited when I found out we were going to place the torch. It’s a huge honor for me!”

[…] “China has done everything it can for me, and what is left for me to do now is to train hard and bring glory to the country,” Ms. Yilamujiang was quoted as saying in an article published by the Communist Party-run Xinjiang Daily. The article also highlighted her personal story, as a teenage talent groomed by her father—himself a decorated skier and national cross-country ski coach. [Source]

At The New Yorker, Louisa Thomas wrote about how Dilnigar’s selection mirrors China’s co-optation of the Olympic motto to advance Xi Jinping’s rhetorical formulations:

This summer, the International Olympic Committee appended the word “together” to its motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The committee described the change as a call for greater unity during the pandemic, and a recognition of the guiding spirit of the Games. A few months later, the Beijing organizing committee announced that its slogan would be “Together for a Shared Future.” The phrase echoes the preamble of China’s constitution, which was amended in 2018, and which refers to a “community with a shared future for mankind.” It’s a phrase that China’s President, Xi Jinping, has used many times to describe the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy. “Together for a Shared Future” seemed, then, to have two meanings, one for the international audience, humming along to a performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as the athletes walked side by side, and another for the domestic audience, for whom the slogan might be taken as an assertion of sovereignty. The prominent participation of Yilamujiang could operate similarly: as an ostensible symbol of inclusiveness for those, like Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who cling to the idea that the Games represent international unity, and, for others, as a symbol of the Communist Party’s nationalism and its program of forced assimilation. [Source]

Kamaltürk Yalqun’s story is a reminder of the human cost of China’s use of Uyghurs to bolster its international image. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kamaltürk, then a young student, served as a torchbearer during the Beijing portion of the Olympic torch relay. Today, he lives in exile in the United States, and his father was imprisoned in 2016 as part of the crackdown on Uyghur intellectuals. Since then, Kamaltürk has only glimpsed his father once, in a brief appearance in a propagandistic 2021 CGTN documentary produced to reinforce the government’s narrative about detention facilities in Xinjiang. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kamaltürk said Dilnigar’s selection was a “purely political move” and encouraged a boycott of the Games. At the Associated Press, Huizhong Wu profiled Kamaltürk Yalqun and his journey from Olympic torchbearer to dissident:

Yalqun recalls being proud to participate in China’s first Olympics. Those feelings vanished after his father disappeared. In 2016, Yalqun Rozi, an editor of books on Uyghur literature, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to “subvert” the Chinese state.

[…] These days, Yalqun wants little to do with his home country.

The Olympic flame, which is meant to transmit a message of peace and friendship, has been doused for him. He is disappointed with the current diplomatic boycott, even as it has grown to include Australia, Canada and the U.K. He says there should be a full boycott, including by the athletes.

[…] “It should be a collective responsibility when such kind of atrocities are happening,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking for me to see such a cold response from people.” [Source]

Dilnigar was not the only controversial torchbearer selection. China selected Colonel Qi Fabao to participate in the Beijing portion of the Olympic relay. Qi commanded troops involved in deadly clashes along the Sino-Indian border in 2020, which reportedly left at least four Chinese and 20 Indian soldiers dead. Qi himself was injured in the fighting. At CNN, Simone McCarthy and Rhea Mogul reported on India’s last-minute decision to boycott the opening ceremony after Qi’s participation in the Olympic torch relay came to light:

“It is indeed regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicize an event like the Olympics,” Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said in a televised speech on Thursday, where he announced the top diplomat at the Indian Embassy in Beijing will not be attending the Opening or the Closing Ceremony.

Following the official move, India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan also announced it will not telecast the opening and closing ceremonies live. The country has one athlete competing this year, alpine skier Arif Khan.

[…] Prominent Chinese commentator Hu Xijin, former editor of the nationalist state-owned tabloid the Global Times, hit back on the Indian reaction, writing on Twitter of Qi’s participation: “What I saw from it was a call for China-India border peace and call for world peace. What’s wrong with this?” [Source]

The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to silence political speech before and during the Games, even warning athletes that they could face legal consequences for speaking out. China also prevented UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet from visiting Xinjiang before the Games, while also demanding that her visit be “to promote exchange and cooperation, not for an investigation.” The Secretary-General of the UN asked Chinese authorities to allow Bachelet to make a “credible visit” to the region, but it is unclear if she will be permitted to do so. In a recent Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) survey, 88% of foreign correspondents who visited the region in 2021 said that they were followed by security forces. A further 34% reported that they were asked or forced to delete data collected on their reporting trips there.

Updated at 16:32:34 PST on Feb 9, 2022: This post was updated to use the Uyghur spelling of Dilnigar Ilhamjan’s given name.

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