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Uyghur activist urges Olympians to put pressure on China with podium gesture

Kabir Qurban of Score4Rights campaign says crescent-shape gesture would draw attention to human-rights abuses

Winston Szeto· CBC News· Posted: Feb 02, 2022

Kabir Qurban at the Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C., on Jan. 24. The teacher is working with the Score4Rights campaign, which is asking Olympians in Beijing to make a crescent-shape hand gesture to show solidarity with people in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Kabir Qurban remembers being proud of his new home as he and his parents attended the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.

But Qurban, who immigrated to Canada with his Uyghur parents in 2007, says nobody should be happy about China hosting the Games, which are set to begin in Beijing on Feb. 4.

He says more than 30 of his Uyghur family members are living under government oppression in China's Xinjiang region.

"To allow China to hold such an event, it brings the quality of the Olympic Games down," he said, citing China's record of human rights violations in Muslim-majority Xinjiang, as well as in Tibet and Hong Kong.

Qurban, now a high school teacher in Surrey, B.C., knows it's unrealistic to hope the Beijing Games will be called off at this late stage.

So, instead, he is working with activists worldwide on a campaign challenging Olympians to make a silent statement that will raise awareness of China's atrocities.

The Score4Rights campaign is asking athletes who medal to make a crescent-shaped hand gesture symbolizing hope while they're on the podium, to show their solidarity with those subject to China's state oppression.

WATCH | Kabir Qurban explains the Score4Rights campaign:

Kabir Qurban, a teacher in Surrey, B.C., says the campaign is inspired by Black Power salutes at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. 1:53

Olympians warned about protests

However, human rights groups are warning Olympians in Beijing not to speak out against China, citing possible persecution from law enforcement.

"Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes that can be used to prosecute people's free speech," a Human Rights Watch researcher told Reuters last month.

"People can be charged with picking quarrels or provoking trouble. There are all kinds of crimes that can be levelled at peaceful, critical comments."

Uyghur oppression

Qurban has become vocal on social media about human rights issues in China since 2018, the year when allegations about Uyghur oppression emerged.

Last February, a motion was passed by the House of Commons saying China's treatment of Uyghurs amounted to genocide. It followed the release of a Commons subcommittee report that found Uyghurs are subject to mass internment, forced labour, state surveillance and birth control — policies the report says are designed to eradicate their culture.

In December, Canada announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, meaning no government officials would attend.

China dismissed the boycott as "farce" and said any claims about human rights violations in Xinjiang are false.

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Qurban, 24, was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a year after his parents fled Xinjiang following a government crackdown on Uyghur protests in 1997.

His parents took him to visit his relatives in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on four occasions, most recently in 2009.

Qurban says he lost contact with his relatives in Xinjiang in 2017, the year when the Chinese government began placing thousands of Uyghurs in internment camps and under technical surveillance.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

But he said he began to lose contact with his relatives in 2017, the year the Chinese government launched a plan to maximize its control over Uyghurs, according to documents leaked in 2019.

Qurban later learned his cousin, with whom he had a close relationship, had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2020 for watching a video deemed seditious by the government.

He says he was dismayed by his cousin's plight.

"I want to use every platform and any opportunity that I can to stand up for my cousin, because when I do meet him and he looks me in the eyes, I could say to him proudly that I did not forget about you," Qurban said.

Is a hand gesture a demonstration?

The Score4Rights campaign is inspired by the Black Power salute made on the podium by U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) strives to keep protests out of the Games, with Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibiting any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at Games sites.

Despite the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) calling for the rule to be amended, the IOC upheld it last April.

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Qurban argues that making a crescent-shaped hand sign is neither demonstration nor propaganda, and he says China wouldn't risk violating athletes' freedom of expression.

"If China disrespects the athletes' right to express their opinions, it will prove that Beijing was not a place fit enough to hold the Olympics," he said.

Qurban at the Richmond Olympic Oval. He says making a crescent-shaped hand gesture at an Olympic site is neither a demonstration nor propaganda. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Pressure on China

While Olympic corporate sponsors and television networks won't talk about China's human rights abuses, grassroots movements like Score4Rights can put pressure on its government, says Sean Roberts, professor of international relations specialized in Uyghur studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"It's important to make the Chinese government feel as uncomfortable as possible," Roberts said.

"Hopefully, there will be enough intelligent people in the Chinese government who will realize what they're doing to the Uyghur people is not in their own best interests, that it's only going to stain China's reputation as a global power [and] as a benevolent state."

WATCH | Sean Roberts explains how campaigns like Score4Rights can put pressure on China:

Sean Roberts of George Washington University says grassroots action is key when Games sponsors and China don't want to face up to the country's repression of Uyghur people. 2:04

The CBC has contacted the COC for comment on the Score4Rights campaign.


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