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Radio Free Asia

Winter Olympics open in Beijing as China points torch at rights critics

By Qiao Long and Chingman 2022-02-04 -- With a thunderous fireworks display and light show, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the 2022 Winter Olympics open on Friday, with Beijing pushing back at human rights critics by having a Uyghur cross-country skier help light the Olympic cauldron to kick off the games.

With many of the world's leaders notable by their absence amid growing criticism of China's human rights record, ice-dancers made intricate formations around a snowflake to the tune of "Imagine" by John Lennon.

Uyghur cross-country skier Dilnigar Ilhamjan shared the traditional honor of being the last athlete to carry the flame with Chinese teammate Zhao Jiawen, a blunt gesture that sparked anger from the Uyghur exile community.

Dilnigar, 20, comes from northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where China has forced over a million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims into internment camps in a campaign described as genocide by rights groups and some foreign governments.

"China cannot sportwash the Uyghur Genocide by simply showcasing a Uyghur athlete for the torch lighting," said Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC).

"No amount of public relations disinformation campaign or skillful damage control attempts by China will be able to deceive the international community and sway their belief that China is committing an ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people."

Mike Pompeo, who headed the State Department when it declared in January 2021 that China's policies in Xinjiang constitute genocide, called the torch spectacle "propaganda efforts that would make Stalin blush."

In a tweet, he wrote: "We cannot allow the CCP to use Olympic fanfare to distract from its ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people."

China angrily rejects the genocide charge, the main issue driving a diplomatic boycott of the Feb. 4-18 games by most Western nations.

Xi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the opening ceremony, an event boycotted by most Western leaders over human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. Putin is the most prominent of the roughly 20 national leaders attending the Beijing games.

Xi, meeting his first foreign leader in person in nearly two years, said the two countries "firmly support each other in safeguarding their core interests," state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

In the run up to the opening, hundreds of Tibetans, Uyghurs and others rallied in Washington, D.C. and other world capitals as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in Switzerland, calling for boycotts of what they call the "Genocide Games."

"Today is a shameful day in the history of the Olympic Games," said Isa.

"When you look at the foreign dignitaries attending the opening ceremony, you'll see the heads of states of authoritarian [states] and dictatorships are there, while the democratic world leaders are absent."

At least 14 countries have said they won't be sending officials to the Olympics, including the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Denmark, and Lithuania, as part of a diplomatic boycott in protest at China's human rights record.

New Zealand, Austria, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands have said they won't be sending officials due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

Rounding up dissenters

As the Games got under way in Beijing, dissidents and rights activists around the country were being held in locations away from their homes by state security police, in a bid to prevent them from speaking out during the event, which the CCP hopes will help to restore its international image amid growing tensions with the international community.

Beijing-based veteran rights activists Zha Jianguo, Hu Jia and others have been forced to leave town or placed under effective house arrest, and are unlikely to be free again until late March, after the end of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), activists said.

"They came on duty yesterday," Zha told RFA from his home, where he is under round-the-clock surveillance. "The guard who brought a stool to sit on outside my front door told me it would last until the end of March."

Zha said his every movement is now being tracked by police.

"When I went to buy groceries, they immediately called it in to the police station, and then they followed along behind me," he said. "They told me that if I need to go to the hospital, the police from the police station would take me."

Independent journalist Gao Yu said many others were in a similar situation.

"Some people have gotten a notice from police warning that they won't be allowed to go out tomorrow," Gao said via her Twitter account on Thursday. "To avoid any confusion, tomorrow is the opening of the Winter Olympics."

Zha said Li Xuehui was being taken out town, while Protestant pastor Xu Yonghai would be escorted by police to a hotel, while fellow rights activists He Depu, Li Wei and others were being placed under close surveillance.

"Qi Zhiyong is also being watched -- I heard a lot of people are under surveillance, but I don't know all of the names," he said. "It'll be for nearly two months, until the end of March."

Beijing-based eviction activist Ni Yulan said she is also under close surveillance.

"We are also under surveillance, and can't just go out when we feel like it," Ni told RFA.

Pastor Xu Yonghai, formerly head of the Beijing Sheng'ai Protestant Family Church Fellowship, said he was en route to a hotel with police at the time of the call, and that it wasn't "convenient" to talk.

Hu said the surveillance detail arrived outside his home nearly two weeks ago.

"The stability maintenance operation around the Winter Olympics started on Jan. 15," Hu told RFA. "Since then, I have had no personal freedom whatsoever."

"The police have visited me a number of times, warning me not to incite anyone to send postcards for prisoners of conscience in detention centers and prisons," said Hu, who was a vocal critic of rights violations linked to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"But their priority was to ask me not to comment on the Winter Olympics in any way, still less criticize it," Hu said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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