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China taps Uyghur athlete to light Olympic flame

Beijing Olympics Olympic flame
Posted at 11:43 AM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 11:44:12-05

In a move filled with political symbolism, China chose an athlete with Uyghur heritage to light the Olympic flame at the Opening Ceremony for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The move comes as several countries, including the U.S., are choosing not to send politicians and diplomats to the games due to, in part, China's human rights violations against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.

Cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang joined downhill skier Zhao Jiawen in lighting the snowflake-shaped cauldron at the end of Friday's Opening Ceremony. According to NBC News and Reuters, the 20-year-old Yilamujiang was born in Xinjiang and has Uyghur heritage.

Lighting the Olympic torch is seen as among the highest honors a country can grant an athlete. At the Summer Olympics last year, Japan bestowed the honor to tennis star Naomi Osaka, one of the world's top-ranked players.

The Uyghur people are a group of Muslim people that live primarily in Western China. In the last half-decade, China has sent thousands of Uyghurs to detention centers where they have been forced to learn Mandarin and the ruling party's political ideology.

China has also sent Uyghurs to work camps to labor in sweatshop factories. Some children are sent to boarding schools, where NPR reports children are subjected to "mental torment."

Shortly before leaving office in 2021, top Trump Administration officials classified China's treatment of Uyghur people as "genocide." In December, White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted China's human rights abuses of Uyghur people as the main reason for the U.S.'s diplomatic boycott of the Olympics.

Several U.S. allies joined in the diplomatic boycott. But the U.S. adversaries are taking advantage of their absence.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping came together to denounce NATO's response to Russia's troop buildup on the border of Ukraine. Russia also reiterated its belief that Taiwan was a part of mainland China.