Kamalturk Yalqun, 17 years old, was one of many students selected to carry the Olympic flame in Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games.
He is now an activist in the United States, calling for a boycott at the Winter Games.
Yalqun stated that “It seems like our sense of global citizenship isn’t moving forward with these Olympic Games anymore” in a telephone interview from Boston where he currently lives in exile.
Since he participated in the Olympic torch relay, and then attended the Games as a representative from his home region of Xinjiang in western China, Beijing has imposed strict policies on Muslim Uyghurs. This has caused Yalqun to be separated from his own family.
The Olympic flame will return to Beijing on Friday with the opening ceremony. This is causing renewed controversy worldwide as it highlights the host country’s treatment of Uyghurs, and other ethnic minorities. Researchers estimate that authorities have held over 1 million members of minorities in mass internment camps for the past few years, most of them Uyghurs.
These events have been referred to by human rights groups as the “Genocide Games.” The U.S. and other nations have accused the U.S. of rights violations in leading a diplomatic boycott.
China denies any human rights violations and calls them the “lie-of the century.”
Yalqun recalled being proud to have been a part of the first Olympics in China. After his father died, those feelings disappeared. Yalqun Rozi was an editor of books about Uyghur literature and was sentenced to 15 year imprisonment for trying to “subvert the Chinese state”.
Yalqun did not see his father again, only seeing him five years later in a Xinjiang documentary made by the state broadcaster CGTN. Yalqun immigrated to the U.S. in 2014 for graduate school and has been there ever since.
Yalqun joined numerous protests in Boston over the last months calling for the boycotting of the Winter Games.
In the lead up to the 2008 Summer Games, the first ever held by China, Tibetan activists protested against Beijing’s oppression.
Yalqun claims he didn’t know much about it at the time. As a high school student, Yalqun didn’t pay much attention to politics. All he knew was that he had the opportunity to visit the capital to see the Olympics in a youth camp.
Xinjiang education officials selected the best students from a few schools. They were then interviewed for English and interpersonal skills by the Communist Youth League region chapter. Yalqun was thrilled to receive a call from the Communist Youth League regional chapter informing him that he had been selected.
He said, “Whether you were a volunteer or torchbearer or just an audience member, everyone was so proud to have been able to participate in the Games.”
Yalqun was later chosen by the Beijing Olympics Committee to carry the torch.
He said that the morning of the run happened on a hot July day, and it went by “in just a blink”. He ran with others a section that began at the eastern end the Great Wall, along the coast of Qinhuangdao.
He said, “The distance we could run was very small, perhaps 30 meters (100 ft),” with a chuckle.
Each runner received a red, aluminum torch with a cloud motif and was presented with an aluminum torch. They could catch the flame from their previous bearer by using an inner chamber filled with propane.
As a souvenir, he got to keep the tall aluminum torch. He was surrounded by curious passengers on the bus to Beijing who wanted to take a picture. He said that everyone was caught up in the excitement.
When the police arrived at his hotel to check on him that night, they found that the torch and torchbearer uniform had helped to smoothen things. Uyghur tourists in large cities were regularly checked by police.
His time in Beijing flew by quickly. He was among 70 youths who were selected to represent China at the Olympic Youth Camp. As the group of 400+ made new friends, he met students from other countries and went on tours to historic sites such as the Forbidden city and newly constructed shopping malls.
2008 Games was China’s coming out party. China had experienced rapid growth and was now more prosperous. The wide boulevards that were once clogged with bicycles are now jammed full of cars.
Yalqun was not impressed by tall skyscrapers or wide streets, but rather the trees.
“Back then, China didn’t pay much attention the environment. He said that everywhere he looked, there was only concrete and cement. There was no natural beauty. He was stunned to see the green corridor that ran from the new international airport to the city, lined with trees. “I could see greenery everywhere.”
Yalqun has little desire to be with his homeland these days.
He has been disarmed by the Olympic flame, which was meant to send a message about peace and friendship. He is disappointed by the current diplomatic boycott that now includes Australia, Canada, and the U.K. He believes there should be an entire boycott, even by athletes.
According to China’s Foreign Ministry, many heads of state and high-ranking global figures, such as Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary General, and Vladimir Putin, Russian President, will attend Friday’s opening ceremonies.
He said, “It should become a collective responsibility whenever such atrocities occur.” “It is heartbreaking to see such a cold response by people.