For the Uyghur torchbearer, the Chinese Olympic flame has gone out

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — At age 17, Kamaltürk Yalqun was chosen to help carry the Olympic flame ahead of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, where he went on to represent his home region in the western China.

Today he is an activist in the United States calling for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Games, which saw the Olympic flame sent back to Beijing.

“It seems to me that our sense of global citizenship and sportsmanship no longer advances with these Olympics,” he said in a telephone interview from Boston, where he lives in exile.

Scheduled to open Friday in Beijing, the Winter Games are already sparking global controversy as they highlight the host country’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. Human rights groups dubbed it the “Genocide Games” as the United States and other countries cited rights abuses in conducting a diplomatic boycott of the event.

In the years since Yalqun’s first appearance in the Olympics, Beijing has imposed policies on his Xinjiang region that have divided his family and the Uyghur community. Chinese authorities have locked up around 1 million or more people – mostly from Yalqun’s Uyghur Muslim community – in mass internment camps in recent years, researchers say.

China denies any human rights violations, calling them the “lie of the century”. He describes his policy in Xinjiang as a “training program” to fight terrorism.

Yalqun remembers being proud to compete in China’s first Olympics, but those feelings disappeared after his father passed away. In 2016, Yalqun Rozi, a publisher of books on Uyghur literature, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison for trying to “overthrow” the Chinese state.

Yalqun never saw his father again – only catching sight of him in a Xinjiang documentary by state broadcaster CGTN five years later. Yalqun moved to the United States for his graduate studies in 2014 and has remained there ever since.

Over the past few months, Yalqun has regularly joined protests in Boston calling for a boycott of the Winter Games.

He says he was unaware that ahead of the 2008 Summer Games – China’s first ever – Tibetan activists also demonstrated against Beijing’s oppression of their community.

At the time, he was a high school student who had no interest in politics. All he knew was that he had the chance to go to Beijing, the Chinese capital, and see the Olympics.

Education officials in Xinjiang selected the best students from a handful of schools, who were then interviewed by the regional branch of the Communist Youth League for their interpersonal and English skills. When he received a phone call saying he had been selected, Yalqun was overjoyed.

“Whether you are a volunteer, a torchbearer or just a spectator (member), everyone was so proud to have been able to be part of the Games,” he said.

An Olympic committee in Beijing then chose Yalqun to be the torchbearer as well.

Race morning took place on a hot day in July and went “in the blink of an eye,” he said. He and others led a section that started at the eastern end of the Great Wall on the coast in Qinhuangdao City.

“The distance for us was very short, maybe 30 meters (100 feet),” he said with a laugh.

Each runner received a red aluminum torch, decorated with a repeating cloud pattern. An interior chamber with propane allowed them to catch the flame of the previous wearer.

He kept the large aluminum torch as a souvenir. On the bus to Beijing, he was besieged by other curious passengers who asked for a photo. Everyone was caught up in the excitement, he said.

The torch and torchbearer uniform helped smooth things over when the police came to his hotel that night to check it out. Police regularly carried out checks on Uyghur travelers in major cities.

His days in Beijing passed quickly. He was one of 70 youngsters selected to represent China at a youth Olympic camp. He befriended students from other countries as the group of more than 400 visited historic sites like the Forbidden City and newly built shopping malls.

The 2008 Games were China’s coming out party. The country had developed at a rapid pace and had grown wealthy. Wide boulevards once crowded with bicycles were now crowded with cars.

It was not the tall skyscrapers and wide streets that impressed Yalqun, but the trees.

“At the time, China didn’t pay much attention to the environment. Everywhere was just concrete and cement, no nature,” he said. But he was struck when he saw the green corridor, filled with rows of trees, from the newly built international airport to the city. “I could see greenery everywhere.”

These days, Yalqun wants little to do with his home country.

The Olympic flame, supposed to convey a message of peace and friendship, was extinguished for him. He is disappointed with the current diplomatic boycott, even though it has extended to Australia, Canada and the UK. He says there should be a full boycott, including by athletes.

Many heads of state and world figures, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin, are expected to attend Friday’s opening ceremonies, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

“It should be a collective responsibility when these kinds of atrocities happen,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking for me to see such a cold response from people.”

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