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Opinion Another university learns the hard way about Chinese censorship on campus

The dissident artist Badiucao designed posters to protest the Chinese government's human rights abuses during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. (Badiucao)

This week, a major university in D.C. found itself in the position of censoring criticism of the Chinese government by removing art posters highlighting Beijing’s human rights abuses during the first week of the Winter Olympics. It’s not the first time China’s long arm of influence reached onto U.S. campuses — and it won’t be the last.

On Monday, George Washington University President Mark Wrighton was compelled to issue a public statement to all members of the university community admitting he had been wrong to remove posters displayed on campus that protested the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers as well as Beijing’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic. In so doing, he had initially followed the lead of Chinese student organizations who complained about the posters.

On Feb. 3, the GWU Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), a student group, circulated a letter calling the posters racist, alleging they “insulted China,” were “trampling on the Olympic spirit,” and constituted an attack on all Chinese and Asian students. The CSSA called on the university leadership to find those who had posted them and “punish them severely!” Later, the GWU Chinese Cultural Association, another student group, complained publicly and in writing to Wrighton that the posters were “inciting racial hatred and ethnic conflicts.”

Neither group noted that the posters were designed by a famous Chinese artist and dissident living in Australia named Badiucao. Badiucao, who is routinely attacked by Chinese state propaganda outlets, defended his work on Twitter and called the attacks “a classic smear campaign to cancel criticism against [the] CCP.”

Initially and privately, Wrighton sided with the student groups. In an email, Wrighton wrote that he, too, was “personally offended” by the posters and promised to find those responsible. After the email leaked, a wave of criticism poured in as GOP lawmakers, free speech groups and other student organizations called on Wrighton to recognize that he was defending censorship, not punishing racism.

In his Monday mea culpa, Wrighton said his comments calling the posters offensive and his orders to remove them were “mistakes.” He said he was educated by the university’s scholars and now understands that the posters are critiques of China’s government, not attacks against the Chinese people.

“Upon full understanding, I do not view these posters as racist; they are political statements,” he wrote. “I want to be very clear: I support freedom of speech — even when it offends people — and creative art is a valued way to communicate on important societal issues.”

Chinese students who support Beijing’s policies may in fact be offended, but as Wrighton (belatedly) acknowledged, that doesn’t give them the right to censor other students, Chinese or otherwise. And although rising violence against Asians and Asian Americans is real and troubling, as Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian wrote in Axios Monday, “Chinese international student groups sometimes use the language of social justice to silence criticism of the Chinese government’s human rights record.”

The university’s leadership was clearly caught completely off guard, even though there has been extensive reporting in recent years documenting how the Chinese government’s diplomatic outposts often work directly with CSSA chapters and other Chinese student groups on campuses to spy on Chinese students, to enforce censorship and to target critics such as the Dalai Lama or Hong Kong democracy student activist Nathan Law. These incidents have been covered on campuses in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

“Given the extent to which these problematic intrusions already have come into view, there’s a persistent lack of preparation among universities and the knowledge sector more broadly to ensure that essential standards of academic freedom are upheld,” Christopher Walker, vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), told me.

Universities in free and open societies must set up clear standards and processes for building resilience to what NED call’s China’s “sharp power” tactics, Walker said. That work has to be done before, not after, the pressure comes from the Chinese Communist Party, its proxies or other authoritarian forces.

The Athenai Institute, a Catholic University of America-founded student organization fighting against the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on U.S. campuses, is pushing for GWU to follow Catholic’s example and to scour its endowments and investments for any entities connected to the Uyghur atrocities in China — and then divest from them. The unstated reason that more colleges don’t confront this issue head-on is because they fear retaliation that will hurt their bottom line.

For his part, Badiucao is not satisfied with Wrighton’s belated realization that his art is protesting racism, not perpetuating it. He wants GWU to put the posters back up and to protect the students who hung them from harassment by the CSSA. He also wants Wrighton to apologize to him directly and invite him to speak to GWU students publicly about these human rights issues, including those who were offended.

“Beijing cannot silence or cancel me. … And I think they cannot fool most of the intellectual community either,” he told me. “This incident can be the beginning of a meaningful conversation instead of the end of it.”