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The Forced Smiles of Beijing’s Olympics

The Communist Party’s victims are not even allowed silence.

By , a Pozen visiting professor at the University of Chicago and a human rights lawyer.
Torch bearers Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Jiawen Zhao of Team China light the Olympic Cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4 in Beijing, China.
Torch bearers Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Jiawen Zhao of Team China light the Olympic Cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4 in Beijing, China.
Torch bearers Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Jiawen Zhao of Team China light the Olympic Cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4 in Beijing, China. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

At the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this month, 20-year-old skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang placed the last torch into the snowflake-shaped cauldron. She later said, “My country gave me such an important task, and I must do it very well, with immense pride and joy in my heart.”

Indeed, the task was much more important than it seems. But it was more than likely not a voluntary one.

Often, figures chosen to light the Olympic cauldron are those who represent a country’s national spirit, such as America’s Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. Yet Dinigeer, a talented skier but not an exceptional one, was almost certainly chosen because she is a Uyghur. Beijing’s message is clear: Although “hostile Western forces” used China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs as an excuse to diplomatically boycott the Olympics, Dinigeer’s smile shows the world that reports of state repression of Uyghurs are lies.

At the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this month, 20-year-old skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang placed the last torch into the snowflake-shaped cauldron. She later said, “My country gave me such an important task, and I must do it very well, with immense pride and joy in my heart.”

Indeed, the task was much more important than it seems. But it was more than likely not a voluntary one.

Often, figures chosen to light the Olympic cauldron are those who represent a country’s national spirit, such as America’s Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. Yet Dinigeer, a talented skier but not an exceptional one, was almost certainly chosen because she is a Uyghur. Beijing’s message is clear: Although “hostile Western forces” used China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs as an excuse to diplomatically boycott the Olympics, Dinigeer’s smile shows the world that reports of state repression of Uyghurs are lies.

This is an old tactic of the Chinese Communist Party—and of other dictatorships. Minorities wearing forced smiles are trotted out to show that nothing is wrong. The human rights community has not hesitated to dub the Beijing event the “Genocide Olympics.” In Dinigeer’s homeland, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples are being subjected to a horrific humanitarian disaster. At least a million have been held in concentration camps—called “reeducation centers” by the Chinese authorities, with the alleged purpose of fighting terrorism, extremism, and separatism—or charged with crimes against the state and sent to a growing prison system.

In fact, what is being practiced is state terrorism. The reasons given for detention in the camps include wearing a beard or headscarf, having more children than permitted, clicking on foreign websites, having closed one’s own restaurant during Ramadan, storing so-called reactionary photos on cellphones, and more. Dinigeer often travels abroad to compete, but many of her fellow Uyghurs have been imprisoned in concentration camps for having studied or traveled abroad, contacted friends and relatives outside the country, or even tried to apply for passports.

My dear friend, the Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, was sentenced to life in prison for his political views, and in 2015, just as Beijing was awarded another Olympics, his 25-year-old niece was sentenced to 10 years simply because police found a photo of her uncle and a related Radio Free Asia story on her phone.

There was also a Uyghur torchbearer, Kamalturk Yalqun, at the Beijing Olympics 14 years ago. But in 2016, his father, the Uyghur literary editor and writer Yalqun Rozi, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years on charges of “subversion of state power.” Yalqun is now a rights activist boycotting the Olympics.

Concentration camp detainees have been subjected to systematic brainwashing, torture, and forced labor. Nearly 200 deaths in custody have been documented despite the extreme difficulty and danger of sending out information. Women are being systematically raped and sexually assaulted by camp guards and officials. Uyghurs have been forcibly sterilized and forced to renounce their faith, children have been forcibly separated from their parents, and more than a million Han Chinese cadres have been housed in      Uyghur  homes for perverse, invasive surveillance. All of these atrocities continue as athletes gather under the Beijing 2022 motto “Together for a Shared Future.” But for Uyghurs, the future is not shared—the future has been killed.

I don’t blame Dinigeer. Before the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, referred to as the “Nazi Olympics,” the German government publicly argued Jewish and Black athletes should not be allowed to participate in the Olympics. Facing boycott pressure, Adolf Hitler’s regime made a compromising gesture by vowing to abide by the Olympic Charter and to give all races an equal opportunity to participate. During the Berlin Olympics, Hitler tried to create an image of an open and tolerant Germany: Jew-hating campaigns were suspended; signs stating “Jews not wanted” and similar slogans were removed from primary traffic arteries; Der Stürmer (“The Stormtrooper”), a rabidly anti-Jewish newspaper, was removed from newsstands; and a Jewish fencer, Helene Mayer, was brought in to complete the facade. The Nazis’ chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels insisted that “no comments may be made regarding Helene Mayer’s non-Aryan ancestry” in the press. Mayer gave a Nazi salute on the podium after winning the silver medal. But later she said it was to save her brothers, who were detained in a concentration camp, and other family still in Germany.

Dinigeer may not have family members imprisoned in the camps, but she likely has relatives and friends in the camps; almost every Uyghur has someone they know who is or was imprisoned. Uyghurs are either prisoners or hostages. Dinigeer is the Helene Mayer of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Olympics. She surely knows perfectly well that if she were to have made a sudden act of protest while lighting the cauldron, she and her family would have been doomed. Like any Uyghur dealing with the Chinese system, she has not even been allowed to use her own Uyghur name, Dilnigar Ilhamjan, but only a version of it rendered in Pinyin to be easy for Han Chinese ears.

Hers are not the only forced smiles. After tennis champion Peng Shuai posted on Weibo on Nov. 2, 2021, to allege she was sexually assaulted by former vice premier and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli, her account quickly disappeared, and related discussions were banned. Peng herself disappeared completely. Two weeks later, Chinese official media began to release images of Peng appearing in public, but that was not enough to assuage concerns over her safety. With the Beijing Winter Olympics just around the corner, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which itself has been called a corrupt, totalitarian system, has played a nefarious role, with IOC President Thomas Bach repeatedly assisting the Chinese government in covering up the truth and suppressing freedom

Recently, Peng attended the Winter Olympics and told French media that she never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, adding that she herself had deleted the initial post. In photos released by the media, a smiling Peng seemed to be telling the world that she was safe and free.

The devil is in the details. In one of the photos, a young man can be seen in a mirror, watching Peng. She has been obviously accompanied or monitored at every public appearance. Similarly, Dinigeer deliberately avoided (or was barred from) talking to foreign journalists after lighting the torch, and she only appeared in official Chinese media to express her joy, pride, and gratitude.

Peng’s recent statements differ vastly from her post in November 2021. In between, she disappeared for weeks. It’s hard for people in democratic countries to imagine how powerful a Politburo Standing Committee member is, how useless the law is before the committee, or how terrible are the consequences that a person in China could face for leveling accusations at a committee member or exposing his scandals.

To understand Peng’s situation, I highly recommend reading the human rights group Safeguard Defenders’ 2018 report “Scripted and Staged: Behind the Scenes of China’s Forced TV Confessions.” It analyzes 45 cases of forced TV confessions, showing that Chinese authorities increasingly use threats and torture to force activists, dissidents, and other detainees to confess. With testimony provided or censored by secret police, they forced detainees to memorize and rehearse it over and over again. “These televised confessions are weaponized and used as a propaganda tool for the domestic population and even as part of Chinese foreign policy,” the report says.

Three months after China was awarded the Winter Olympics, Chinese secret police kidnapped poet and publisher Gui Minhai, a Swedish passport holder, in Thailand and took him back to China. After likely being brutally tortured, he appeared on television to claim that he had voluntarily returned to China, renounce his Swedish citizenship, refuse international help, and deny being ill. Over the course of Gui’s confession video, his shirt appeared to changed color, indicating multiple forced confession sessions.

Shortly before the IOC announced Beijing as the 2022 Olympic host, China began rounding up human rights lawyers. Xie Yang, one of 321 lawyers targeted, was subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, the “dangling chair” torture, and beatings on his head resulting in bleeding. After news of the torture came to light, he was tortured again and forced to say that he had made up the previous torture claims. Two weeks before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Xie was arrested again.

Peng is facing a more complex and subtle form of televised confession. She is being intimidated and put under 24/7 surveillance, giving her no choice but to appear, talk, and smile. I call it “enforced appearance during disappearance.”

After the 2008 Tibetan unrest, during a staged visit to the Labrang Monastery, more than 15 monks ran out of the temple carrying their own painted Tibetan flag, shouting in Tibetan, “We demand human rights, we are not free, we want the Dalai Lama back.” Jamyang Jinpa, a 37-year-old monk who was shouting “Tibet wants freedom” in English, was arrested that night and released after 15 days of detention, having “lost his eyesight and had his bones smashed, unable to stand or sleep.” He died tragically less than three years later. At least two other Tibetans were sentenced to life imprisonment and 15 years. It doesn’t matter whether Peng and Dinigeer knew about this specific incident. At some level, every Chinese citizen is aware of the risks of crossing the state. What matters here is that they clearly knew the danger.

Commenting on Peng Shuai and Zhang Gaoli in China has become dangerous, and so has commenting on the Uyghur torchbearer. One Uyghur wrote, “hard for me to get excited.” In the days following the opening ceremony, at least 23 Uyghurs in Xinjiang were detained and fined for making similar comments.

Dinigeer’s and Peng Shuai’s smiles demonstrate a horrifying truth. When speaking out is prohibited, one can usually remain silent. But even that last refuge has been denied them. Now there is no other choice: smile, or have your teeth broken.

 

Teng Biao is a Pozen visiting professor at the University of Chicago and a human rights lawyer.

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