Despite admonitions to not “politicalize the games,” Beijing’s opening ceremonies for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games conveyed a political message to the world.
Politics has always been part of the Olympic Games. The impetus behind the modern Olympic Games, as conceived by William Penny Brookes and Pierre baron de Coubertin, was to use sports for promoting peace among nations, an inherently political agenda. Decisions on whether dignitaries will attend or who lights the torch are intentional on the part of the visiting and hosting countries, particularly since the first televised Games in 1960.
Therefore, when the Chinese Olympic Committee chose first-time Olympic athlete Dinigeer Yilamujiang, also spelled Dilnigar Ilhamjan,* a twenty-year-old cross-country skier of Uyghur heritage, the country was making a statement. Dilnigar is from Altay, Xinjiang where her father, a decorated skier, is a national cross-country coach. Dilnigar lit the torch with Zhao Jiawen, the first Chinese athlete to compete in the Nordic combined event and who is of Han ethnicity.
The Associated Press talked to several Beijing residents at a park north of the Olympic Stadium to get their reaction to the torch lighting ceremony. One person applauded that both athletes were female, and several people saw it as a show of unity that should not be politicalized. Within China’s “Great Firewall,” online information about human rights abuses in Xinjiang is either sanitized or censored completely.
A spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress said the decision was shocking and hugely insensitive. And 2008 torch bearer Kamaltürk Yalqun told the Associated Press that our sense of global citizenship and sportsmanship is not moving forward with these Olympic Games anymore. Kamaltürk moved to the United States in 2014 and has worked as an activist after his father, Yalqun Rozi, was sentenced to prison for fifteen years for “attempting to subvert the Chinese state.” His father edited books on Uyghur literature.
In an interview taped before her 43 out of 65 finish in the cross-country skiathon, Dilnigar said, “China has done everything it can for me, and what is left for me to do now is to train hard and bring glory to the country.”
According to Wall Street Journal reporters, after completing her event, Dilnigar did not pass through the “mixed zone,” an area where athletes may talk with journalists if they wish to. According to International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules, athletes must pass through the “mixed zone” upon exit, but Dilnigar did not.
The Unspeakable Topic
Beijing has cracked down on any discussion about human rights abuses in Xinjiang where over 1 million people, most of whom are Uyghurs, have been put in detention camps. Leaked documents, first-hand accounts, and satellite imagery relate nothing short of mass internment of an ethnic minority where men and women are tortured, raped, and sometimes killed. Many are assigned to forced labor. Their children are often sent to “Sinicization” schools.
Those who are not in the camps live in a high-tech surveillance state where reverse engineering of the apps used by police officials and leaked police records show that Uyghurs are singled out for mundane activities like growing a beard or using the back door of their home more than the front door. United Nations reports show a substantial drop in childbirths in Xinjiang that can only be due to mass sterilization and separation of families.
Because of the mounting evidence that the Chinese government is engaging in the systematic demise of an ethnic minority and its culture, several countries including the United States, Canada, the UK, and Australia have formally accused China of genocide. Others have accused the country of human rights abuses or crimes against humanity. Several countries have chosen to not send delegates to the Olympic Games as a symbol of protest. Beijing’s spokespeople continue to deny that they are repressing Uyghurs and claim that their actions are counterterrorism measures.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has said that the “so-called genocide in Xinjiang is the biggest lie of the century.”
While several countries did not send dignitaries to the Games, China’s Xi Jinping welcomed Vladimir Putin as a guest even though Russia is banned from officially participating in the Olympic Games until the end of 2022 due to state-sanctioned doping. (Russian athletes who were not connected to the doping scandal can compete under the auspices of the Russian Olympic Committee as neutral athletes.)
The IOC has been accused of enabling the Chinese Communist Party by remaining silent on human rights abuses, acquiescing to Beijing’s demands for silence and surveillance, and absolving the Chinese government of wrongdoing in the case of former Olympic athlete Peng Shuai. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 837 by unanimous vote stating that the IOC’s role in “legitimizing” China’s claims about Peng Shuai’s safety, “raise questions about the organization’s ability and willingness to protect the rights of athletes participating in the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic games in Beijing.” (See the Congressional Research Service report R47016 “The Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games: Issues for Congress.”)
Additionally, athletes from other countries, including the U.S., have been advised to withhold political statements about Xinjiang until they return home because the Chinese authorities have threatened consequences for anyone who “politicalizes the games.” According to Rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” although according to the IOC’s guidelines, while protests and demonstrations are not permitted, expressing one’s views is allowed. Additionally, athletes must respect the laws of the host country.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said that “Team USA athletes will not be sanctioned by the USOPC for peacefully and respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice for all human beings.” (Quoted in the Congressional Report.)
On Twitter, many people have called attention to the human rights abuses in China with #GenocideGames. The hashtag is a reprise from the 2008 Beijing Olympics which were also dubbed the Genocide Games by activists because of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet as well as its role in the Darfur genocide. However, Twitter was not around in 2008 so the “Genocide Games” did not have the reach that social media allows. To offset the “Genocide Games” narrative, China’s state-sanctioned Twitter brigade has flooded the #GenocideGames hashtag with nonsense to drown out the actual messaging.
The Comforting Lie of 2008, the Uncomfortable Reality of 2022
Kai Strittmatter, German journalist and author of We Have Been Harmonized who has lived, studied, and reported on China for thirty years, wrote that “some people are awakening from the comforting lie that as China’s economy grows, it will become more democratic.”
For China, 2008 was a pivotal year. It was the year when China’s rise became self-evident to the Chinese people, and the West’s demise became inevitable, particularly after the financial crisis. To the rest of the world, 2008 was China’s “coming out” as a global participant with burgeoning free market economy and hopefully eventual democratic governance.
According to former Central Party University professor Cai Xia, the CCP took advantage of the 2008 Olympics to accomplish several goals:
First, the Chinese government used the Olympics to establish its digital surveillance state, which gained momentum after Xi Jinping took office as the general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012. Notably, the head of the organizing committee for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was Xi Jinping, who was a member of the Politburo at the time. Xi is expected to announce his third term at the end of this year after abolishing the two-term limit in China’s constitution.
The 2022 Olympics will likely lead to an expansion in China’s high-tech oppression. Already, strict measures justified in the name of Covid-19 protections are being used to control where people go and what they have access to. For example, prior to the 2022 Games, Xie Yang, who is a lawyer, said his health code app changed from green to red just as he was going to visit the mother of an imprisoned dissident in Shanghai. This prohibited him from being able to travel.
Second, Cai says the CCP “used the success of the  Olympic Games to propagandize the ‘China Model,’” a state-controlled economic model that allows for the growth of private businesses for a limited time. Cai says of the 2008 Games, “The grand scenes and various exquisite and dazzling performances at the opening ceremony amazed the world, presenting an illusion of a free and prosperous China.”
In contrast to a free society, prior to the 2022 Games, several human rights activists were arrested and stringent lockdowns were put in place even though every other country is loosening Covid-19 restrictions.
Third, Cai says the CCP used the influence of the successful 2008 Games “in psychological preparation for China to ‘gain its due position’ in world affairs.” Beginning in 2009, Beijing’s rhetoric and posture with international relations changed to one that would become increasingly aggressive and nationalistic.
Author and New Yorker columnist Evan Osnos was living in Beijing during the 2008 games. He writes that unlike the 2008 games, the 2022 games “carries a distinct sense of foreboding.” Xi Jinping features more prominently than Hu Jintao in 2008. Osnos talked with Orville Schell, who has been reporting on China since the 1970s. Schell’s assessment of the opening ceremonies:
I think this is really almost the coronation of the ‘new era’ of socialism with Chinese characteristics, with Xi Jinping standing up there all alone delivering his homily…
On the one hand, they so desperately want to be part of the world, and respected. But on the other hand, they’re so militantly opposed to making themselves soluble to the rest of the world. It’s a real contradiction. In effect, ‘We are worthy of your respect—and fear.’Evan Osnos, “What the ‘Involution’ Olympics in Beijing Suggest About China’s Future” at The New Yorker
It seems that the CCP has every intention of taking advantage of politicalizing the Games.
Post-script: After the Games
Radio Free Asia reports that questions about Dilnigar’s future prompted netizens to look up what happened to former Uyghur torchbearers. Adil Abdurehim, a Uyghur torchbearer in the 2008 Olympics and a former member of the Chinese Communist Party is currently serving a 14-year jail sentence for “watching counter-revolutionary videos.” Additionally, more than 20 Uyghurs have been detained for posting critical comments about Dilnigar online. Likely, whatever happens to Dilnigar will be the most politically expedient for the Chinese Communist Party.
* Dinigeer Yilamujiang is the pinyin of the Chinese version of her Uyghur name. Both China Digital Times and the World Uyghur Congress refer to Dinigeer Yilamujiang as Dilnigar Ilhamjan or Dilnigar.
In case you missed it:
Surveillance and Silence at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Why are countries instructing their Olympic athletes to use burner phones? Ahead of significant events and anniversaries, the Chinese Communist Party typically becomes less tolerant of dissent and more stringent on censorship. (Heather Zeiger)
2022 Winter Olympics: Security Vulnerabilities in the MY2022 App. All Olympics attendees are required to download the MY2022 app to track their health and other personal data, despite security concerns. According to a cybersecurity group, MY2022 has devastating security flaws that violate China’s own laws as well as Google and Apple privacy requirements. (Heather Zeiger)