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China's UN Envoy Says Choice of Uyghur Torchbearer Not Meant to Deflect Western Criticism

Chinese torchbearer athletes Dinigeer Yilamujian (L) and Zhao Jiawen hold the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Feb. 4, 2022.

China's United Nations envoy has rejected his U.S. counterpart's remark that China's choice of an ethnic Uyghur as a torchbearer for the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics was an attempt to distract from his country's alleged rights abuses against Muslim minorities.

Ambassador Zhang Jun said in a statement on the embassy's website that China "sternly refutes" the "unwarranted accusations" made by U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield in an interview with CNN.

Zhang said that Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross country skier born in Xinjiang, is "among the best" of the 20 athletes from nine ethnic minorities competing for Team China at the Winter Games.

"She is the pride and excellent representative of the Chinese people. Where does the U.S.' inexplicable anger over this come from, and what intentions does it harbor?" Zhang said.

Dinigeer was selected as one of the last two torchbearers at the opening ceremony. Many Western nations have imposed a diplomatic boycott of the Games over China's treatment of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.

U.N. experts and rights groups estimate more than a million people, mainly from the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in camps in Xinjiang since 2016.

China rejects accusations of abuse, describing the camps as vocational centers designed to combat extremism, and in late 2019 it said all people in the camps had "graduated".

International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said on Saturday that Dinigeer was not chosen because of where she comes from.

Chinese organizers of the Games said the torchbearers who entered the stadium with the flame had been picked based on their birth dates, with each having been born in a different decade, starting from the 1950s through to the 2000s.