Feb 7, 2022 - World

U.S. university reverses decision to remove Olympic protest posters

Olympic protest posters by Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao

Olympic protest posters by the Chinese Australian artist Badiucao. Image courtesy of Badiucao

The president of George Washington University in D.C. has reversed his earlier decision to remove campus posters protesting the Beijing Olympics, which Chinese student groups had said "incited racial hatred and ethnic tensions."

The big picture: Universities in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere are navigating how to protect Chinese students from rising anti-Asian hate crimes, while protecting speech and art that criticizes Chinese government oppression from censorship by some Chinese students on campus who view that criticism as racist.

  • Chinese international student groups sometimes use the language of social justice to silence criticism of the Chinese government's human rights record.
  • The incident also highlights the fears among Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Kong and pro-democracy Chinese students in the U.S. that they can't exercise their right to free speech.
  • "Some Chinese students in the U.S. often don't realize that it's possible to be both victim and oppressor at the same time," Maya Wang, senior China analyst at Human Rights Watch, told Axios.

Details: In early February, posters protesting the Beijing Olympics were posted in several locations on the George Washington University campus, according to a student group statement and photos posted to Twitter.

  • The posters show athletes wearing uniforms bearing the Chinese flag pointing a rifle at a bound and gagged Uyghur; pinning down a Tibetan; skating over a Hong Kong flag; riding atop a surveillance camera doubling as a snowboard; and pushing a virus across the ice.
  • The identity of the person who put the posters around GWU's campus isn't known.
  • Chinese Australian artist and political cartoonist Badiucao created the posters before the Olympics began and made them available for free download online.
  • "My art is always targeting the Chinese Communist Party, never the Chinese suffering from this regime," Badiucao, who lives in Australia, told Axios.

What they're saying: In a Feb. 6 statement posted to WeChat, the GWU Chinese Cultural Association said students had reported the posters to the police and the "unauthorized" posters had been removed.

  • The posters "pose a potential risk to the personal safety of all Chinese and Asian students at George Washington University, including verbal and physical violence," the group said.
  • "The ideas expressed are not based on indisputable facts but rather on highly controversial political disputes," the statement read. "This series of posters incites not only intra-ethnic hatred in China but also inter-ethnic hostility and inter-cultural contempt."
  • The Chinese Cultural Association did not respond to a request for comment.

The posters were subsequently removed, but in a Feb. 7 message posted to the university website, GWU President Mark Wrighton said this was a mistaken measure taken in haste.

  • "Upon full understanding, I do not view these posters as racist; they are political statements. There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters," Wrighton said.

Background: In recent years, Chinese student associations in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. have intimidated students and visiting speakers who support Uyghurs, Tibetans and the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, according to a recent ProPublica investigation.

  • Official Chinese students associations abroad often have close ties to China's embassies and consulates, which often provide funding to the groups and sometimes ask them to hold pro-Chinese Communist Party political activities.
  • The Chinese government also uses the language of anti-racism and inclusion to discredit discussion of its repressive policies. Uyghurs who criticize the Chinese government's repressive policies, such as putting people who pray frequently into mass internment camps, have been imprisoned on charges of "inciting ethnic hatred."

Between the lines: "This student group seems to be exporting Chinese government oppression and conflating a number of issues while referencing Black Lives Matter," Wang of Human Rights Watch told Axios.

  • "Racism and discrimination against people of Chinese origin is definitely real," said Wang.
  • "But some are exploiting this legitimate grievance and twisting it to say that any criticism of China is racism against Chinese people and should not be raised in any form. It is quite disingenuous of them to raise the oppression of African Americans, while completing dismissing the oppression of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers."

The university's initial response was also "disappointing," Wang said, because it seemed to take official Chinese student associations on campus as representative of all Chinese students.

  • "I know of many Chinese students in the U.S. who are afraid of these Chinese student associations," Wang said.
  • "They don’t think these groups represent their views, they don’t want to participate in their activities because they feel they are being bullied," she added, but students with different views don't feel it is safe to form their own independent associations for fear of reprisal back in China.

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