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One of several posters by Badiucao

Courtesy of Badiucao via Twitter

The president of George Washington University is under fire for his response to a series of political art posters on campus that aimed to shed light on human rights abuses by the Chinese government.

The posters—which, at first glance, look like advertisements for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing—depict Chinese athletes in images representing human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government. In one poster, a biathlon competitor points her rifle at someone who is blindfolded and wearing the Uyghur flag. Another shows a snowboarder atop a surveillance camera. The posters were created by Badiucao, a Chinese dissident artist based in Australia.

The George Washington University Chinese Students and Scholars Association—a local chapter of a Chinese student group overseen by the Chinese Communist Party—called the posters “seriously racist” and said they “insulted China” in an email to students last week.

“During the opening of the Winter Olympics, these posters express not only trampling on the Olympic spirit, but also a naked attack on the Chinese Nation,” the group wrote in the email, which Badiucao shared on Twitter.

Leaders of the group also denounced the posters in a letter to university officials, including President Mark Wrighton.

“Please know that I am personally offended by the posters,” Wrighton wrote in an email to a student, which Badiucao shared a screenshot of on Twitter. “I treasure the opportunity to work with talented people from all over the world, including China. Your reaching out to me directly is much appreciated, and we are working to have all of these offensive posters removed as soon as possible.”

The student group was most upset by the poster that shows a Chinese curler pushing a COVID-19 virus instead of a curling stone.

“It may resonate with racist statements such as the ‘Chinese Virus’ and the conspiracy theories of artificially created viruses, which may have seditious effects on certain groups of audiences,” the group wrote in an online explanation of its position. “The creating, spreading, and random posting of this poster may incite Asian Hate sentiment and pose a potential risk to the personal safety of all Chinese and Asian students at George Washington University, including verbal and physical violence.”

Badiucao called the GWUCSSA’s efforts a “classic smear campaign to cancel criticism against [the Chinese Communist Party] via calling it ‘racism.’”

Wrighton reversed his position in a statement Monday, explaining that after learning more about the posters and the artist, he no longer finds them offensive.

“Upon full understanding, I do not view these posters as racist; they are political statements,” Wrighton wrote. “There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters. 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. I also support the many students and faculty at our university who are engaged in researching, and actively advocating against, all forms of discrimination, marginalization, and oppression.”

He also said that he and other university officials replied too hastily to students who were concerned about the posters.

“These responses were mistakes,” Wrighton said. “Every member of the GW community should feel welcome and supported, but I should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.”

In the days prior, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, as well as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, took aim at Wrighton for his intended censorship of the posters. FIRE released another statement Monday praising the university for its swift reversal but noted that university officials should have reached that conclusion more quickly.

“It should have been immediately obvious to GW’s administration why attempting to unmask and punish anonymous student critics of China is a terrible idea and, frankly, it’s troubling that they needed to be reminded of this fact,” the FIRE statement said.

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