Tibetans, Uyghur compete on China’s Olympics team, drawing praise and criticism

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By Richard Finney

Originally published by Radio Free Asia on 28 January, 2022

They are a source of pride, but their participation should not obscure China’s rights abuses, activists say.

Two ethnic Tibetans and a Uyghur are competing this year on China’s national Olympics team in Beijing, prompting feelings of both pride and concern from activists fighting against human rights abuses in the athletes’ home regions.

Tibetans Yangchen Lhamo, a woman, and Tsering Damdul, a man, will be competing in snowboarding and cross-country skiing respectively at the Games, according to reports in Chinese state media.

“I am proud and very happy for the two Tibetans who are competing in these Games,” said Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan-Canadian activist who was arrested in October for disrupting the Winter Olympics’ torch lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece.

 “But it is important for them to know the reality of what is happening inside Tibet, and Tibetans both living in Tibet and in exile must support each other,” Lhamo said.

Golok Jigme, a former Tibetan political prisoner now living in exile in Switzerland, said he had nothing against the Tibetans participating in the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

“However, it is clear that Tibetans inside Tibet have no freedom and are forced to conform to the wishes of the Chinese government,” he said.

The Beijing Winter Games have already drawn a series of protests and calls for boycott from the international community because of China’s treatment of Tibetans and other minority groups, Jigme said.

“And so this is just a political performance for the Chinese government to show the world,” he said.

Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan who served six years in prison for making a documentary film depicting the hardships of Tibetans’ lives under Chinese rule, said that by placing Tibetans on China’s team, Chinese president Xi Jinping may be trying to show the team represents all groups living in China.

“But we don’t know what kind of force may have been used on these individuals,” Wangchen said.

Formerly an independent country, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force 70 years ago, and Tibetans living in Tibet frequently complain of discrimination and human rights abuses by Chinese authorities and policies they say are aimed at eradicating their national and cultural identity.

‘Facade of false equality’

Also present on China’s team this year, Uyghur cross-country skier Dilnigar Ilhamjan, 20, comes from northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where China has forced over a million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims into reeducation and labor camps in a campaign described as genocide by rights groups and many foreign governments.

Dilnigar was selected to join the China National Cross Country Training Team in 2017, and was sent to Norway the following year for a three-year period of advanced training under foreign coaches with other highly skilled international skiers, Chinese media sources say.

However, Rushan Abbas — executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Campaign for Uyghurs — called Dilnigar’s addition to the Chinese team “yet another attempt to create a façade of false equality by the Chinese Communist Party.”

“This is nothing more than another game to district the world from the reality that the Uyghur genocide is ongoing and that the CCP is responsible for it,” Abbas said.

More than 200 nongovernmental organizations from around the world called on Thursday for governments to join a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games, now set to begin on Feb. 4, saying host country China is responsible for “atrocity crimes and other grave human rights violations.”

“That the Winter Olympics is held in Beijing sends a signal to the world that Xi Jinping’s government is normal,” said Renee Xia, director of the rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, one of 243 groups including Human Rights Watch and the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress who joined in the call.

“When the world rationalizes away such an abusive situation, it makes it harder for victims to stand up against injustice,” Xia said.

Reported by RFA’s Tibetan and Uyghur Services. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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