When Dinigeer Yilamujiang lit the Olympic fire on the evening of February 4 at the Bird’s Nest, the agreement of analysts was almost unanimous: China had just made a striking political move at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
It was a message to the world: this is our country, the Uyghurs are Chinese and everything is fine, stop accusing us and harassing us with that issue.
The Chinese government even spread the word that in the mountainous area of Altay, where Yilamujiang is from, cave paintings dating back 10,000 years were found in caves that seem to depict humans skiing.
But that was probably all too much for Yilamujiang, the cross-country skier of Uyghur surname and origin. If in the first few hours it was already difficult to get a good photo of Yilamujiang, 20, talking to her became impossible.
“After her first race on Saturday, Yilamujiang did not walk through a mixed zone with reporters, in apparent contravention of IOC guidelines,” wrote “The New York Times”.
“On Tuesday, she was in Zhangjiakou, where the cross-country events are being held. She failed to advance out of the first round in the women’s individual sprint, finishing 56th in a field of 90. Hurrying through the press area afterward, she did not stop to talk”.
The U.S. newspaper quoted some of the comments of the Chinese state media after the opening ceremony, in which Yilamujiang lit the fire together with a member of the Han ethnic group, the majority ethnic group in China.
“The Chinese state media declared after the ceremony that Yilamujiang had “shown the world a beautiful and progressive Xinjiang” with her “smiling face and youthful figure.”
The propaganda effort was offensive to many overseas Uyghurs, who have long sought to raise awareness about China’s mass detention and re-education campaign targeting Uyghur Muslims that the United States has declared as genocidal.”
“The New Yorker” magazine, which spoke of China’s “provocation” at the opening of the Games, noted that there are two ways of looking at what happened with Yilamujiang.
“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.”
The Chinese could counter that Yilamujiang hasn’t opened her mouth since her name went around the world. The skier spoke to the state-run Xinhua news agency, although what she said did not exactly have political depth, as was to be expected.
“That moment will encourage me every day for the rest of my life. I was so excited when I found out we were going to place the torch. It’s a huge honor for me!”.
The U.S. government, beyond the understandable sporting honor for the young skier, sees Yilamujiang as something else.
“‘This is an effort by the Chinese to distract us from the real issue here at hand,’” US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Sunday on CNN.
“That Uyghurs are being tortured, and Uyghurs are the victims of human rights violations by the Chinese.”
Yilamujiang’s “dumbness” is reminiscent of the case of tennis player Peng Shuai, who after denouncing a former high-ranking Communist Party official for sexual abuse disappeared from the scene and only made public statements controlled and broadcast by the Chinese regime.
The Associated Press news agency spoke to Marc Ventouillac, one of two journalists for French sports daily L’Equipe who spoke to Peng this week “in a restrictive interview arranged with Chinese Olympic officials”.
Ventouillac says he is still unsure if she is free, and adds that China’s intent was clear to him, AP writes: “By granting the interview as Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics, Chinese officials hope to put the controversy to rest, so it doesn’t overshadow the event”.
Ventouillac said Peng “seems to be healthy.”
“To secure the interview -AP writes-, organized through China’s Olympic Committee with help from the IOC, L’Equipe agreed to send questions in advance and publish her responses verbatim, in question-and-answer form. Originally allotted a half-hour, Ventouillac said they ended up getting nearly double that and asked all the questions they wanted, beyond the “8 or 10″ they pre-submitted.
“There was no censorship in the questions.”