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Questions Swirl as Uyghur 'Face of the Olympics' Vanishes After China's PR Stunt in Opening Ceremony

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The 20-year-old Uyghur woman who lit the Olympic flame during the Friday opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics has avoided the media since her Saturday debut.

Dilnigar Ilhamjan — transliterated in Chinese as Dinigeer Yilamujiang — avoided talking to the press after she finished 43rd in the Women’s 7.5km + 7.5km Skiathlon at Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre on Saturday, the Daily Mail and the Wall Street Journal reported.

According to the Journal, after her unimpressive finish Saturday, Yilamujian did not speak to journalists waiting for more than an hour at the venue.

Instead, she avoided the “mixed zone” that athletes should pass through in compliance with Olympics rules, according to the Journal. The mixed zone is a space where journalists can pose questions to athletes, which the Olympians are free not to respond to.

The International Olympic Committee and the China National Olympic Committee did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment.

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During the Friday opening ceremony of the games, Yilamujiang was one of the two athletes the Olympics’ organizers had picked to light the Olympic cauldron in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium.

Although Yilamujiang did not comment to the media on Saturday, comments said to be from her were published in a Monday report from China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency.

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“That moment will encourage me every day for the rest of my life,” Yilamujiang told the outlet, describing her experience lighting the torch, according to Xinhua. “I was so excited when I found out we were going to place the torch. It’s a huge honor for me!”

Human rights groups and activists had criticized the controversial choice of the girl from Altay Prefecture in the northern part of the Uyghur homeland, claiming this was the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt to gaslight the world about its human rights record in the region.

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The choice of date for the opening ceremony was also ominous, considering that it was a day before the 25th anniversary of the Ghulja Massacre.

In the Feb. 5 1997 massacre, the Chinese government killed multiple Uyghur protestors and carried out mass arrests after the people protested the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of Uyghur cultural practices and the execution of Uyghur independence activists and freedom fighters.

The Uyghurs call their homeland, presently under Chinese occupation, “East Turkistan” or “Uyghuristan.” The Chinese Communist Party calls it the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

The Uyghurs, a Turkic group sharing cultural roots with the Turkish people and other Central Asian nations, have an extensive history of resistance to Chinese occupation, colonization and annexation of their homeland, which began under the Qing Dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty called the land “Xinjiang” or “New Frontier” to mark the establishment of Chinese occupation in regions west of China-proper.

After multiple years of resistance against Qing colonization, the Uyghurs, in the 1930s, established the first East Turkistan Republic, declaring independence from the Chinese after over a century. However, the Republic of China, successor to the Qing Dynasty, swiftly suppressed the nascent republic and recaptured it, killing many Uyghur intellectuals involved in the Uyghur nation’s independence movement.

Then, in 1944, with the Soviet Union’s help, they established a second East Turkistan republic. But, in 1949, the Communists in China, with the support of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, occupied the state and annexed it into the People’s Republic of China.

Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has cracked down on Uyghur efforts to restore their country’s independence, branding Uyghur national consciousness as “separatism” and “terrorism.”

It has carried out settler colonialism by encouraging Han Chinese immigration into the region to alter demographics and has thrown Uyghurs into concentration camps euphemistically labeled “vocational training centers.”

The Chinese Communist Party has also carried out ethnic cleansing by promoting “Sinicization” at the expense of local culture, the destruction of Uyghur heritage sites and the arrests of prominent Uyghur intellectuals.

The Chinese government has been fiercely defensive towards criticism of its brutal policies in the Chinese-occupied Uyghur homeland, going to lengths to try and discredit human rights organizations and Western governments expressing concerns over its human rights record.

Yilamujiang’s media silence has raised suspicions that her interactions are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

These suspicions arise in light of the controversy surrounding Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai who disappeared after accusing a senior former CCP official of sexual coercion.

Since Peng has returned to the public eye, her appearances have given the impression of being scripted and monitored by Chinese officials.

Her most recent interview, as reported by The Associated Press, was a controlled one, and in it, the player who once posted about alleged sexual abuse against her, backtracked on her initial allegations, calling them “an enormous misunderstanding.”

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Andrew Jose is a freelance reporter covering security, U.S. politics, and foreign policy, among other beats. He has bylines in several outlets, notably the Daily Caller, Jewish News Syndicate, and the Times of Israel.
Andrew Jose is a freelance reporter covering security, U.S. politics, and foreign policy, among other beats. He has bylines in several outlets, notably the Daily Caller, Jewish News Syndicate, and the Times of Israel. Speak to Andrew securely via Follow Andrew on Twitter: @realAndrewJose
Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service
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