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Brush With Censorship At GW Reveals America’s Vulnerability To Beijing’s Soft Power

In China, the government polices speech, but in America, it’s private institutions beholden to leftists and financial benefactors in Beijing.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — At the request of outraged students, George Washington University cleansed the campus of art by a Chinese dissident, even going so far as to mount an investigation into who hung his posters. While GW reversed its decision, this case courtesy of my alma mater highlights a stark and depressing reality: In China, the government polices speech, but in America, it’s private institutions beholden to fragile leftists and financial benefactors in Beijing.

Badiucao uses his work to criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses with the grace of an artist, attracting coverage from international media like CBS News and The New York Times. He’s a respected practitioner of his craft, so much so that when an Italian museum displayed his art in 2021, the president told the Times, “We never thought for a moment about canceling the exhibit…We believe in the role that contemporary art has as a powerful and inspiring instrument channeling themes that affirm freedom of expression.”

She added, “We didn’t invite Badiucao because he was a dissident Chinese man, we invited him because he is an artist who shows us how art can be used as a critical tool.”

Why, of all places, would an American institution of higher learning disagree, let alone one that claims it “embodies the spirit of artistic exploration”?

According to GW President Mark Wrighton, his move to take down the posters was a “mistake.” He’d previously sent an email referring to the art as “offensive,” ordering its removal, and pledging to investigate who was behind the posters, which mimic advertisements for the Beijing Winter Olympics to highlight the CCP’s brutal treatment of religious minorities. (You can purchase prints here.)

After Badiucao put the school on blast over the weekend, Wrighton issued a statement that said, “Last week, the university learned of posters on campus depicting images that alarmed some members of our community, and we began to receive a number of concerns through official university reporting channels that cited bias and racism against the Chinese community.”

Wrighton admitted to “hastily” making a decision and conceded he “should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.”

“I have since learned from our university’s scholars that the posters were designed by a Chinese-Australian artist, Badiucao, and they are a critique of China’s policies,” said Wrighton. “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’s initial decision came after the GW Chinese Students and Scholars Association claimed the posters displayed “serious racist views,” demanding Wrighton determine who hung the art and “Punish them severely!”

This absurd, anti-American sentiment, it must be said, comes from a group the CCP uses as a propaganda arm, even once paying GW students to demonstrate support for Xi Jinping when he visited D.C. back in 2015. A deep-dive in Foreign Policy reported that CSSA leaders around the country felt “growing ideological pressure from the embassy and consulates” to influence their work on campuses for the sake of boosting the CCP. One student told FP, “I do feel like there is an invisible hand behind them, saying they want more than this.”

It’s entirely possible GW’s CSSA chapter complied with guidance from Chinese officials in D.C. when demanding the school take action against Badiucao’s work.

But what explains Wrighton’s knee-jerk censorship reflex? Before the president’s Monday reversal, Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted about the situation and accurately noted “many American universities are enthusiastic agents” of the CCP’s efforts to censor speech in the U.S.

As Hillel Neuer explained on Twitter, in 2016 Wrighton made Washington University of St. Louis “the first [North America] partner of the Silk Road University Alliance, the academic arm of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative” and even “gave the keynote at the opening of Xi’an Jiaotong University’s 120th anniversary celebration.”

Wrighton ultimately made the correct decision, but nothing about the art changed between his first decision and the Monday statement. It is not remotely racist and could only be interpreted as such by propagandists looking to quash dissent. No university president should have been so easily cowed. But, of course, when considering Wrighton’s apparent sympathies for the government in China and cultural leftists in America, his reflex becomes easier to understand.

The dustup at GW offers a useful window into America’s cultural decline. An American academic’s first instinct should never be to censor art, but now the demands of allegedly aggrieved students create intense pressure, which is exacerbated by our academies’ permissiveness of Chinese soft power. Like Stacey Abrams, who claimed criticism of her shameless hypocrisy on masks constituted racism, the CCP knows false charges of bigotry can be weaponized to silence political dissent in the U.S. We’re defeating ourselves while Beijing pours fuel on the fire.