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Home World Olympic Torchbearer Evokes Memories of 2008 for Fellow Uyghur

Olympic Torchbearer Evokes Memories of 2008 for Fellow Uyghur


It was a politically charged message. A smiling Uyghur woman gripped the Olympic torch to open the Winter Games on Friday in Beijing. To another Uyghur, who ran with the Olympic flame 14 years ago, it seemed to be “an elevated form of puppetry.”

China’s choice of 20-year-old cross-country skier

Dinigeer Yilamujiang

to deliver the flame together with another skier from the country’s dominant Han ethnicity represented an unmistakable assertion of ethnic harmony, and a defiant rejection of Western criticism of its human-rights record.

Back in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Games, Kamaltürk Yalqun, a Uyghur from China, carried the flame for part of its ceremonial journey. Now 31 years old and living in Boston, Mr. Yalqun said that while he was proud at the time to represent China, ethnic repression has worsened and his family has suffered as a result. His father is now imprisoned, and the rest of the family is in the U.S.

On Ms. Yilamujiang’s role at the opening ceremony, he said, “I believe she’s a good athlete, but this is a purely political move.”

Western researchers, journalists and governments have documented widespread evidence that more than a million Uyghurs and other mostly Islamic minorities who live in China’s Xinjiang region have been detained in recent years in a campaign of forcible assimilation. The allegations are a primary reason the U.S. and some of its allies aren’t sending diplomatic representatives to the Olympic Games. The Biden administration has labeled China’s treatment of Uyghurs as a form of genocide.

Beijing rejects any such allegations as lies. “All ethnic groups of the People’s Republic of China enjoy equality,” according to an official policy paper.

The flame ceremony on Friday night capped an Olympics Games opening rife with political messaging, from the use of favorite phrases of President

Xi Jinping

to the participation of People’s Liberation Army soldiers.

With a beaming smile on her face and dressed in her nation’s white and red team jacket, Ms. Yilamujiang held the Olympic torch in her gloved left hand below the grip of Zhao Jiawen, who competes in Nordic combined skiing.

“This is a cauldron consisting of all participating countries,” a China Central Television announcer said.

CCTV announcers didn’t mention the display of ethnic unity, but Chinese viewers could have few doubts about Ms. Yilamujiang’s ethnicity based on her name. In its global broadcast of the ceremony, NBC’s

Savannah Guthrie

called the pairing “a quite provocative moment” and President Xi’s “in-your-face response” to the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott.

Online in China, a comment describing the appearance of people from Xinjiang in the opening ceremony as a pointed jab at foreign critics got thousands of likes. A more common reaction was to question why Ms. Yilamujiang, a relative unknown, was accorded such a high honor, instead of a more famous athlete.

Kamaltürk Yalqun, who carried the flame for part of its journey before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, now lives in Boston.



Photo:

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

In other elements of the opening, ceremony director

Zhang Yimou

portrayed China as an ethnically harmonious nation. The country’s red flag was passed through the hands of members of all 56 ethnicities recognized by China’s government, many of them dressed in traditional outfits including headdresses, before soldiers hoisted it up the flagpole.

Ms. Yilamujiang’s political views aren’t known.

A  native of Altay, the mountainous easternmost portion of Xinjiang near China’s border with Mongolia, Ms. Yilamujiang skied from a young age. She began training at age 12 with her father, one of the country’s best cross- country skiers in the 1980s. She spent three years training in Norway.

Ms. Yilamujiang said her goal was to “win a medal and win honor for my country,” according to a report in December by China Sports Daily. Competing on Saturday in a black hat instead of the China team’s white, she ranked 43rd in skiathlon, a brutal 15-kilometer event split between classical and freestyle cross-country skiing.

In 2019, Ms. Yilamujiang, who also competes in relays, won silver at a major cross-country competition in Beijing. China’s female cross-country skiers have never placed better than 16th in Olympic competition, according to Xinhua News Agency.

After Friday’s ceremony, Chinese diplomats on Twitter reposted short videos showing Ms. Yilamujiang’s mother and other family members watching her on television, some with tears in their eyes.

Mr. Yalqun got an opportunity to clutch the Olympic flame when he was 17 because he was a star student, not an athlete.

The native of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, was invited to an Olympic youth camp in Beijing, which included a chance to see the opening ceremony in a full dress rehearsal. A few days before the Games, near the easternmost section of the Great Wall, he briefly ran with the official torch, landing on national TV.

He said it was a great honor to carry the torch, even as he was aware then of what he calls “repulsive but relatively tolerable” state pressure on Uyghurs and despite disappointment organizers wouldn’t let him run wearing a Uyghur hat. “It was a source of pride for my family and friends and the community around us,” he says.

Kamaltürk Yalqun in July 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics, when he participated in the torch relay.



Photo:

Kamaltürk Yalqun/Associated Press

Mr. Yalqun’s views changed in 2016, when his father,

Yalqun Rozi,

was arrested along with colleagues on allegations their work editing Uyghur-language books that had long been used in schools was subversive, the son said. A Chinese court sentenced the father to 15 years in prison. “They wanted to eliminate Uyghur education,” said Mr. Yalqun.

By then, Mr. Yalqun and his sister were in the U.S. for studies, and their mother was visiting. They haven’t returned to China and have had no contact with his father since his arrest.

In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2022, Mr. Yalqun, now a bioanalytical scientist at a pharmaceutical company, got active in a dissident movement that calls China unfit to host the Games.

Mr. Yalqun purposely didn’t watch the Olympics opening ceremony. “We’re trying to boycott the Games in as many ways as we can,” he said.

What to Know About the Beijing Winter Olympics

Corrections & Amplifications
Dinigeer Yilamujiang’s comment about hoping to win a medal was originally published by China Sports Daily. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the comment stemmed from the Xinhua news agency. (Corrected on Feb. 5)

Write to James T. Areddy at james.areddy@wsj.com

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