China tried deflecting criticism over Uyghurs with an Olympic torchbearer from Xinjiang

Dinigeer Yilamujiang (left) and Zhao Jiawen (right).
Dinigeer Yilamujiang (left) and Zhao Jiawen (right).
Image: Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

More than one torchbearer for the Beijing Winter Olympics is causing a stir. For its opening ceremony, China picked a final torchbearer from Xinjiang as a rebuttal to the many countries that have criticized its human rights record in the region. Women’s cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Zhao Jiawen, who competes in men’s Nordic combined, delivered the final Olympic flame at the opening ceremony.

The symbolism was not subtle. The male-female pairing nodded to gender equality, while the presentation of a Han person and an ethnic minority, their hands clasped together, pointed to China’s oft-proclaimed racial harmony. As the two lowered the Olympic flame into a giant snowflake, children holding up twinkling lights surrounded them to form a heart.

Yilamujiang is from Xinjiang, a region where multiple governments suspect China is committing an ongoing genocide against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities. According to her profile on the official Olympics website, she was born in Altay in the region’s far north. She picked up cross-country skiing from her father, who is an instructor in the sport. The profile also notes that the 20-year-old speaks Mandarin but it does not list Uyghur as one of her languages.

Chinese media have shared videos of Yilamujiang’s mother wishing her daughter luck and other relatives emotionally reacting to the moment she touches the torch.

Weaponizing ethnicity

Ethnic tokenism is a well-worn tactic used by Chinese officials to deflect criticism about policy in Xinjiang.

Uyghur actress Dilraba Dilmurat, for example, is frequently held up by Chinese officials as “proof” that there is no oppression in Xinjiang.

That said, China’s messaging around national unity has grown more sophisticated since the last time it hosted the Olympics. In 2008, Beijing faked minority representation by sending out Han children in costumes depicting China’s 56 ethnic groups, instead of using children that were actually were from those minorities.

One previous Uyghur Olympic torchbearer is also highlighting how performative these acts of inclusion are, even when actual minorities are involved.

Kamaltürk Yalqun was 17 years old when he was tapped to run a short segment of the 2008 Olympics torch relay. Initially, it was a great source of pride for him but those feelings eventually turned. In 2016, his father, a book editor on Uyghur literature, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years for state subversion, part of a wider documented persecution against Uyghur academics and cultural figures.