A cauldron-lighting flash point one night, Dinigeer Yilamujiang was a skier the next day

Beijing 2022 organizers selected Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old ethnic Uyghur from Xinjiang, as one of two athletes who lit the Olympic cauldron at Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies. The global community responded with astonishment that China had chosen a representative from a population its government has been accused of committing genocide against. Security forces in recent years have detained at least a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, the area in the country’s northwest where most Uyghurs live.

A day after her appearance at National Stadium, Yilamujiang lined up next to the world’s best cross-country skiers. She finished 43rd in a 65-woman field, about six minutes behind Norwegian gold medalist Therese Johaug in a race totaling 15 kilometers, skied 7.5 kilometers at a time in different disciplines with a pit stop in between to change skis. Yilamujiang produced a performance in line with her typical finish in world class races.

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Yilamujiang’s thoughts on her Olympic debut and her role in the cauldron lighting remained unknown, at least to the media. The four Chinese skiers in the race never appeared in the mixed zone, the mazelike area where athletes are typically required to walk past reporters. Nearly 90 minutes after the race, venue managers told reporters Yilamujiang could not be found and instructed them to leave.

As Yilamujiang skied, the world debated how to interpret her prominent place in the ceremonies. At the 2008 Beijing Games, gymnast Li Ning — a three-time gold medalist — lit the cauldron. Some China experts viewed Yilamujiang’s selection as a purposeful goading of countries that have criticized China’s human rights record.

“I know well how belligerent and arrogant the Chinese government has become in the past couple of years, and I’m still surprised by its brazenness,” Human Rights Watch senior China researcher Yaqiu Wang said in an email. “Having a Uyghur light the torch is a middle finger to the rest of the world, as if saying: ‘Hey, I don’t care what you say about me. I do whatever I want.’ ”

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In Wang’s view, the gesture doubled down on China’s “farcical” claims that Uyghurs are happy in their circumstances and that they are enrolled in “vocational schools” rather than forced into internment. She called on governments around the world to take more forceful action in the face of what she saw as escalated Chinese provocation.

“This government is not just committing crimes against humanity, but also flaunting it,” Wang said. “Everyone should be offended and outraged.”

Yilamujiang grew up in Altay, a prefecture bordering Mongolia in far northwest Xinjiang. Chinese officials consider the region the cradle of Alpine sport, after cave paintings were discovered there of hunters on skis, dated at 10,000 years old. Locals still use hand-carved wooden skis covered in a horsehide, although mostly now for the benefit of tourists.

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As a girl, Yilamujiang trained with her father, Yilamujiang Mulaji, who took bronze in China’s 1993 national cross-country skiing championships. (Uyghur children are sometimes given their father’s first name as a surname.) After retiring, he worked for state television and the local tourism bureau.

His daughter went from hobbyist to competitor in 2012 after taking part in a local race. She made China’s national team in 2017, around the time the Xinjiang authorities began expanding a network of detention facilities across Xinjiang. Since 2018, she has trained mostly in Norway.

Chinese state media coverage highlighted the father-daughter story ahead of the Olympics with documentaries showing the small team training together on remote, underdeveloped slopes.

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The Chinese government’s assimilation policies in Xinjiang often provide preferential support for families that display loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Job opportunities, school scholarships and access to passports for international travel often require political background checks.

Those who question Beijing’s rule or are deemed too religious undergo forced “reeducation” or lengthy jail sentences. Children whose parents are detained often end up in boarding schools where speaking in Uyghur, their mother tongue, is banned.

In 2020, Yilamujiang was praised by Gou Zhongwen, director of China’s General Administration of Sport, as a “role model” who worked hard at both physical training and lessons in political thought.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the party has accelerated efforts to meld the country’s 55 ethnic minorities into a single national identity built around the culture of the Han Chinese majority. State media has emphasized that “11.36 percent” of the 176 Olympians on team China are non-Han.

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On Chinese social media, nationalists shared videos of Yilamujiang’s family in tears while watching her light the cauldron and celebrated the choice as a fitting rejoinder to international scrutiny of China’s ethnic policy in Xinjiang.

“This is a powerful counterblow to smears from the United States and anti-China Western forces,” wrote Sima Pingbang, a hyper-patriotic commentator with 7 million followers on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media site.

Yilamujiang is scheduled to ski again here, but it will be difficult to view her only in the context of her competition. Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur activist and linguist from Xinjiang who lives in exile in Norway, said his first reaction to Yilamujiang lighting the cauldron was to “hope that what she has done will save her family.”

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But a similar display of loyalty during the Beijing Summer Olympics did not prevent Ayup’s cousin-in-law, Adiljan Abdurehim, from being sentenced to six years in prison in 2019. As head of the Saybagh district athletics department in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, he was chosen to take part in the relay. Later, he was caught in the government security clampdown.

“He held the torch in 2008,” Ayup said. “But torch carrying couldn’t save him.”