At an American University, Accusations of Racism Become a Tool for Censoring a Chinese Dissident's Art
A talk with Badiucao, his open offer to debate at George Washington University, and the reach of Chinese repression on Western campuses.
The last thing Badiucao was supposed to be was an artist.
The Shanghai native’s grandfather was an early filmmaker in China, but was sent to a labor camp during a purge of creatives in the late 1950s, where he later died. Badiucao’s grandmother died while her husband was in the camp, making his father an orphan at 6.
“That traumatized my family…So when I grow up, the family lesson is don’t be an artist because of what happened to your grandparents,” he said.
His father said he should be a chef or a barber or a lawyer. But today, Badiucao is a dissident political cartoonist living in Australia.
His turning point came when he and friends pirated a Taiwanese romcom in their college dorm. They noticed the file was larger than expected. Halfway through the movie, they discovered a documentary about the massacre at Tiananmen Square embedded in the file.
“That was a very shocking experience, not just to witness the massacre itself but also to know this is erased from our understanding of history of modern China,” he said. “That basically complete my puzzle of understanding China. I have to reinvent myself.”
He moved to Australia and began creating art that called out the Chinese government for its treatment of citizens. He has criticized the government for disappearing news about a 2011 high-speed rail crash that killed many and injured hundreds. He has mocked Xi Jinping using Winnie the Pooh, and is famous for his commemoration of the death of literary critic and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo.
This year, Badiucao watched as the world gathered in his native China for the Olympics.
“The Chinese government has committed so many human rights crimes and still they get this opportunity to show and and celebrate the Olympics, which is a very problematic thing.”
His satirical Olympics posters have found a friendly audience, with many around the world using them to express their discomfort with the 2022 Games being played in Beijing. The artist, who goes only by his pseudonym, used Winter Olympics sports to symbolize different atrocities.
A snowboarder shreds down the top of a video camera signifying the surveillance state. A figure skater’s blades carve through the bauhinia flower of the Hong Kong flag. A curler heaves a stone down the ice, but the stone is the now infamous red-spiked coronavirus.
Badiucao has had plenty of experience with the Chinese government objecting to his work. But this week, the posters sparked controversy, and even censorship, at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The artist’s posters appeared in several buildings at the university as the Olympics kicked off Feb. 3, posted anonymously in communal areas and on bulletin boards. In addition to the surveillance state, Hong Kong, and lack of transparency on coronavirus, Badiucao takes aim at oppression of Tibetans and Uyghurs. The Olympic rings are represented in barbed wire and each athlete wears a jersey bearing the nation’s 5-star flag featuring five stars— a feature he chose deliberately to mark his criticism of the state, not the people.
Shortly after they were posted, Badiucao got word that they had been removed after complaints from students to the administration that the posters were racist. Posting on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, the university’s chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association called them “posters that insulted China” and “discriminated against Asians.” The students wanted a public apology and for punishment for those who displayed them.
On Twitter, Badiucao proposed an “open debate on the campus of GWU on the topic of if my art is racism or legit criticism against CCP.”
Badiucao said alleging racism for any criticism is a tactic the CCP uses to great advantage on Western campuses, where administrators are afraid of any such accusation.
“My identity is Chinese and I love my culture and I love the people who live in China and I feel sad that my people have to suffer from this regime on a daily basis,” the artist told me. “My art is always focused on the crimes and the problems of the government… It’s just a very sneaky and confusing and misleading narrative that the Chinese government is using. This has been a very useful tool to censoring those criticism against Chinese government all over the world.”
It proved useful at George Washington University. Students involved leaked an email that appeared to be from George Washington’s brand-new president Mark Wrighton.
“Please know that I am personally offended by the posters,” he wrote to the students. “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 these offensive posters removed as soon as possible. I, too, am saddened by this terrible event and we will undertake an effort to determine who is responsible.”
Wrighton issued a statement Monday walking back the response and belatedly backing free speech:
At that time, and without more context on the origin or intent of the posters, I responded hastily to the student, writing that I, too, was concerned. University staff also responded to ensure the posters were removed. These responses were mistakes. 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.
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. 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.
He went on to say “I support freedom of speech—even when it offends people—and creative art is a valued way to communicate on important societal issues,” while also lauding those who work agains “all forms of discrimination, marginalization, and oppression.”
Badiucao tweeted: “Its in right direction but it is far from good enough.”
Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch agreed.
“I see that statement as a necessary but insufficient step,” Richardson said. “I think these problems are a lot more common than schools realize and/or want to admit. I think too often they are … afraid to take a strong position bc they’re afraid of looking like racists, which is sort of the trap that the GWU president walked into.”
There are very real risks to Chinese students on Western campuses who are deemed to go afoul of their government back home. Human Rights Watch outlined China’s tactics in this 2021 report.
“[University administrators] have to look at whether all students feel equally comfortable in a classroom,” Richardson said. “And they better make sure that any of the students criticized in this particular episode are safe.”
Increasingly, groups like CSSA and the Chinese Cultural Association can exert China’s soft power with not so soft results on U.S. campuses, said Sarah McLaughlin of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which works to protect students’ free speech. While not always officially aligned with the Chinese government, these student groups sometimes work with consulates and embassies, and have been known to be compensated and guided by the government in activism. Neither GWU chapter of these organizations responded to request for comment.
Notably, Wrighton in his last job, made Washington University in St. Louis the first American member of the University Alliance of the Silk Road, an arm of the Chinese government’s One Road, One Belt project to increase its global influence.
Incidents at various elite universities have shown the power of conflating criticism of China with racism or discrimination against Asian communities. When Uyghur attorney and activist Rayhan Asat appeared on a panel at Brandeis in 2020, she was subject to a “Zoom bombing” during which hackers covered her screen with “fake news” and “liar.”
Brandeis’ president only responded to that incident after more than a year, and he did so in a private email to faculty, not a public statement.
A Chinese graduate student at Purdue lauded the bravery of Tiananmen Square activists online in 2021, and his parents were visited by state security with demands that he stop speaking out. He was also harassed by fellow Chinese students, according to reporting by ProPublica on a rash of incidents like this on U.S. campuses.
While GWU’s new president eventually came down on the side of free speech, it took several days and public outcry. One would hope the reflexive move would be to back protest art on a college campus, not immediately censor it in the face of those who claim they are offended.
McLaughlin said mistakes like this are often a function of administrators acting more like PR employees than educators.
“They just want to make people stop criticizing them,” McLaughlin said. “This case is a good example of how jarring that can be when the thing you’re immediately apologizing for are basic critiques of human rights violations.”
Purdue’s president Mitch Daniels took a different tack.
Daniels’ forceful letter left no doubt about which side of the debate he took about “intimidation we have discovered surrounds this… speech.”
“Any such intimidation is unacceptable and unwelcome on our campus,” he wrote, promising discipline for those who were caught.
Joining the Purdue community requires acceptance of its rules and values, and no value is more central to our institution or to higher education generally than the freedom of inquiry and expression. Those seeking to deny those rights to others, let alone to collude with foreign governments in repressing them, will need to pursue their education elsewhere.
At GWU, this story and the president’s somewhat tepid walkback, has seeded a “chilling effect,” McLaughlin said.
The battle seems far from over, as CSSA circulated a petition Tuesday doubling down on complaints. The organization claimed students had been “severely hurt by the poster irresponsibly associating the widespread of COVID-19 virus with China” and asked the university to “conduct a thorough investigation” and “prevent such incidents of discrimination from happening again in the future.”
One organization reported seeing Chinese state TV employees on George Washington’s campus, getting comment on the controversy.
Badiucao said the quick jump to censor did damage the university should try to undo. In a statement released Monday, he called Wrighton’s initial reaction “ignorant” and challenged the school to display the censored artwork, protect students who live in fear of reprisals or doxxing, and have a public debate about the art.
“There’s a lot more work to do and I really hope GW gets into that quickly,” said Richardson. “It seems crazy not to take Badiucao up on his offer to have a public debate with the students who don’t like his art work. That’s what universities are for!”
In 2018, Badiucao was poised to have his first big solo exhibition in Hong Kong. But three days before its debut, he learned his identity had been compromised. His family was interrogated and threatened by Chinese security police. Those helping him in Hong Kong were also intimidated. The show was ultimately canceled.
“I have to make a very hard choice, which is to cut all my connections with anyone I know in mainland China,” he said. “I know they will be punished because of my behavior. That’s always the strategy the Chinese government try to use to [silence] dissidents outside of China.”
But a year later, as China exerted its power on Hong Kong, his art became an important part of the protest movement in the streets.
“I always say in 2018, the Chinese government took away my chance to show my art work in a gallery. But in 2019, the entire city became my gallery,” Badiucao said.
Badiucao said the concerns over racism that drove this act of censorship should instead drive criticism of the Chinese government and other oppressors. He hopes his art gets past talk of diplomatic boycotts of the Games, which he supports, to the hearts and minds of regular people.
“If you’re supporting the native rights or the migrant’s rights in America, you should also support people’s criticism against Chinese government,” he said. “This is how we uphold the same values and principle when we’re talking about human rights.”
As for a debate, he will keep pushing for the university to host it.
“If they really want to prove their point they should not shy way from this type of discussion. I’m very keen to hear what’s their argument,” he said. “Because in a lot of statements they make, they just make this judgment of my art without giving an argument.”