China is sternly refuting a U.S. allegation that it chose an Uyghur torchbearer for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics to “distract” the public from human rights abuses against the ethnic minority.
Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skier from Xinjiang, was chosen as one of the last two torchbearers to light the Olympic cauldron on Friday night. Beside her was Heilongjiang-born Zhao Jiawen, who competes in Nordic combined.
Yilamujiang quickly drew controversy since she had yet to make her Olympic debut before serving as a torchbearer. Her selection — instead of a more renowned or more experienced athlete — with a member of China’s Han majority was perceived as an act of defiance against the Xinjiang pushback, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was among those who suspected an ulterior motive. In an interview with CNN, she described Yilamujiang’s selection as a distraction from the Chinese government’s alleged persecution of their Uyghur population.
“This is an effort by the Chinese to distract us from the real issue here at hand, that Uyghurs are being tortured, and Uyghurs are the victims of human rights violations by the Chinese. We have to keep that front and center,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
On Sunday, China’s U.N. envoy Zhang Jun released a statement to “resolutely refute the unfounded accusations.” Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks, he suggested, are part of a larger “smear campaign” against China, which leaves the country with no choice but to “push back and clarify our position.”
Zhang said Yilamujiang is among 20 athletes from nine ethnic minorities competing in Beijing 2022 — and she is allegedly the cream of the crop.
“She is the pride and excellent representative of the Chinese people,” Zhang said. “On what ground does the U.S. has such inexplicable anger over this? And why?”
Zhang went on to highlight the participation of around 170 athletes from “nearly 70 countries and international organizations” as a testament to the success of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. He also cited the attendance of “31 heads of state, heads of government, members of the royal family and heads of international organizations” in the opening ceremony, suggesting the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott to be “a complete failure.”
Meanwhile, Chinese organizers said the torchbearers were chosen based on their birth dates, with each one entering the stadium born in a different decade, as per Reuters. In a statement on Saturday, International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesman Mark Adams also supported Yilamujiang’s participation “in any ceremony” as a qualified athlete.
Yilamujiang was barely referred to by the Chinese media after finishing 43rd in her event. She and three other Chinese skiers “never appeared in the mixed zone, the mazelike [sic] area where athletes are typically required to walk past reporters.” Reporters allegedly waited for Yilamujiang to appear almost 90 minutes after her event, but she never showed up.
As a result, the real decision behind Yilamujiang’s selection can only be speculated. Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post that she was surprised by China’s “brazenness.”
“Having a Uyghur light the torch is a middle finger to the rest of the world, as if saying: ‘Hey, I don’t care what you say about me. I do whatever I want,’” Wang said.
Featured Image via Getty