In a Pointed Move, China Featured a Uyghur Athlete in the Opening Ceremony

Much of the controversy around Beijing as the 2022 Olympic host city centers around China's treatment of Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group native to Xinjiang in western China. So when China picked an athlete of Uyghur heritage, cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang (above left), to help deliver the Olympic flame to the opening ceremony, it was a choice designed to provoke controversy and send a message: that China apparently won't be cowed by other world powers into changing its ways.

In the opening ceremony, Yilamujiang was joined by men's Nordic combined athlete Zhao Jiawen. Together, the pair placed the Olympic flame in the middle of a large snowflake, which rose into the air in the center of the stadium. It was a striking, symbolic moment to be sure — but one that glazed over the international turmoil at the heart of these Olympics.

A number of nations, including the United States, have characterized China's treatment of Uyghurs as genocide, a charge that China denies; the Chinese government claims that its actions are akin to a re-education campaign meant to combat terrorism in Xinjiang. This is one of the reasons that the US, Canada, and several other countries are partaking in a diplomatic boycott of these Olympics, which means that no government representatives from these countries will attend. The shady way that China has dealt with tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a former Chinese official of sexual assault in November 2021, has likely also played a role.

Featuring Yilamujiang in such a prominent role in the opening ceremony certainly feels similar to the way Peng was paraded around following her extended disappearance — a way for China to feign safety and respect for these individuals while remaining tight-lipped on how they're actually being treated. China is clearly putting on a show under the spotlights, placing one Uyghur athlete on a pedestal while reports of child abuse and detention camps continue to roll in.

Andy Browne, editorial director of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum who appeared on NBC's Opening Ceremony broadcast, described Yilamujiang's torch lighting as "a riposte to President Joe Biden for skipping these Olympics," as well as "a message to the West: China won't be lectured to on human rights, or on any other issue." It's a reminder, in the midst of a dazzling opening ceremony, that much of the fanfare we see at these Olympics will have an inherently political message behind it. Even as we watch the athletic feats on display in Beijing, it's worth noting that more propaganda plays are likely on their way.