Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao
In a 20-foot container, somewhere near the Port of Melbourne, Badiucao plugs in a light sculpture. It’s an effigy, of sorts, of the Chinese writer and Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, rendered in blue and orange neon. Badiucao apologises for the mess. He rummages through his masks as if shuffling a deck of cards: a balaclava, a pink stocking, papier-mâché and an alpaca mask. The alpaca is actually a meme turned resistance symbol, he explains; the Chinese pronunciation of alpaca is cao-ni-ma, meaning both grass-mud-horse and fuck-your-mother. His smile is commanding.
The rain is amplified by the metal echo of the container. Still, any unfamiliar sound is pronounced by Badiucao’s reaction; he looks for shadows in the gaps of the door. Although the Chinese dissident artist has spent the past decade in Australia, he hasn’t found home here yet. He wears a leather jacket and a brave face. Acts as if he isn’t being followed. Even though he is.
Before we meet, he reports a stalking incident to the police. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve made it easy for Chinese authorities to kidnap me,” he says, rolling a cigarette with enough tobacco for two. “I’m in a container. No one around. My phone is off.”
“I’ve been experiencing death threats and online smear campaigns,” he says. “The most creative thing the Chinese government did was that they created a fake website for me.” He pauses, before proceeding with shame. “I was presented as a paedophile in China. They say I left to escape from the justice I should face.”
Badiucao is one of China’s most prolific political cartoonists. He considers himself an artist, and activism comes with the territory. His subversive work blends pop culture, internet memes and current affairs – he often reimagines Peppa Pig and Winnie the Pooh, both censored icons in China, as revolutionary symbols.
“The Great Firewall and censorship system dominates the internet in China, but there has been a constant battle between Chinese netizens and the wall,” he explains. “So, in order to express without been censored, various memes of political satire have been invented online such as Winnie the Pooh and Peppa Pig.”
Badiucao bounces between his art practice in Melbourne and work assisting Ai Wei Wei in Berlin, all the while attempting to confront China’s political narrative through his art, his memorial service for the forgotten. Death feels very present in his work. He invokes the spirit of long-forgotten ghosts – a reminder that fiction is the shadow of truth. In China, history is a real-life ghost story; faced with tyranny, remembrance is the only defence.
In high school, the death of a friend by suicide rattled Badiucao. Not so much the death itself, but the forgetfulness of his peers. “Before I left China, I would visit him every year during the ghost festival, in the middle of spring,” he says, pausing briefly. “It’s always haunting me because no one seems to remember him.”
Another formative moment came a few years later, one night in the dorm rooms of his law school, when his friends pirated what they thought was a Taiwanese rom-com. It was, in fact, a three-hour documentary, which brought to life the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“When I’m watching it, I’m the same age as them,” he says. “Death, like the death that I witnessed in high school. But being expanded and repeated, tens of thousands of times.”
A suspicion grew inside him that China was a construct that inspired people to forget. “My first reaction was denying it was real. I’ve never heard about it. No school has ever talked about it. No books,” he says. “But it happened. The footage is there.”
Reporters have made much of this experience in his political awakening. The reality, however, is always more complicated than any neat narrative.
For Badiucao, the tragic fate of Chinese artists is woven into his DNA. “My grandfather and his brother were the first group of filmmakers in China. They were very active up until the 1950s when the Communist Party took power,” he says, obvious pride in his voice. “There was a political purge targeting all the artists and intellectuals. It was called the Hundred Flowers movement.”
In 1956, the Communist Party of China encouraged all citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime, in an attempt to encourage diverse opinions that would enrich the nation. Chairman Mao told the Supreme State Conference: “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.”
By late spring 1957, millions of letters started arriving in government offices. Leading academics and university students in Beijing began to openly criticise government policies, including control over intellectuals, the brutal tactics used against counter-revolutionaries, the low standard of living, abolition of foreign literature and economic corruption within the Communist Party.
Mao decided to weed out these detractors. Between 300,000 and 550,000 intellectuals, academics, writers and artists were identified as Rightist and were publicly discredited. Some lost their jobs, others were sent to concentration camps for re-education.
“Their work was labelled ‘poisonous grass’, meaning it was bad for the sheep – bad for the people,” says Badiucao. “My grandfather was sentenced to a rural concentration camp, like the camps in Xinjiang at this moment. We don’t know what happened to him.”
Badiucao turns his mind to the present. “You see some left-wing kids talking about communism and Marxism as if all the disasters in my country never happened.” He points to the camps in Xinjiang, where hundreds of the thousands of members of the Uygur community are being held. “I think the biggest problem for the Uygur community in Xinjiang is the concentration camps that have been established over their homeland,” he says, offering an apology for China’s treatment of the Muslim minority. “Anyone can be thrown in there if they have long beards. Nobody is safe. The Chinese government is killing the Uygur people, forcing them to give up their faith. They threaten their families so that they cannot tell their stories.”
We speak about Hong Kong, where his first solo exhibition, Gongle, was meant to be held last year. On his phone, he shows me a photo of a work from it – a Chinese torture instrument called a tiger chair, used to constrain prisoners in stress positions for days.
But as the date of Badiucao’s exhibition drew closer, his identity was compromised and his family in mainland China began receiving threats from Chinese government authorities. Together with the event organisers, he made the decision to cancel the show. “I believe it was the first art exhibition that was cancelled in Hong Kong – not only because of its political content but because of threats from mainland China,” he says.
The United States state department’s annual Hong Kong Policy Act Report, which assesses Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework, pointed to the cancellation of the exhibition as a key incident related to freedom of expression.
“The [US] report was ringing the bell for the art world,” he says. “It was the first time an exhibition was censored due to the pressure from Beijing.”
In recent weeks, more than a million people have taken to the streets in Hong Kong to protest an extradition arrangement with mainland China that was introduced by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.
“I’ve been closely watching the protests, looking for heroic figures,” says Badiucao. “There was a man in a raincoat who fell from a building in Hong Kong.”
This man, Leung, has been described as the first martyr of the protests; he died after falling from scaffolding while trying to hang a political banner.
“They are like heroic individuals who represent the public courage among the Hong Kong citizens. But I’m also depicting the violence of the police who are firing shotguns with rubber bullets towards the protesters. They are the ones inflaming the riot.”
Badiucao lights up at the thought of revolution. “A million or two million, they’re just numbers. In photos, they’re just little black dots. We need to bring them to life, give them a face, a character. So people realise that this is not static, these are real people.”
In the crowds in Hong Kong, you can see Badiucao’s images – printed out and waved like flags by protesters. He imagines being there. “You have to be there to feel it. To feel the wave in the crowd, you feel the power. That’s the power that Beijing is scared of.”
As the wind rattles the door of the container, Badiucao asks me to sit down, offering an impromptu eulogy for the illuminated sculpture behind him. It began with a cartoon sketched from the last photograph taken of Liu Xiaobo, a key figure in the Tiananmen protests. Liu brokered a peace agreement with the military, saving countless lives. He turned down an offer of asylum in Australia and was jailed for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement”. In the image, taken before his death from cancer in 2017 and censored by Chinese authorities, he has one arm around his wife, the artist and poet Liu Xia.
“My cartoon became an online icon of the couple, an image that isn’t censored yet. From the cartoon, I made some street art in Hosier Lane that was put up a day before he passed away. I thought I should bring some flowers to the site but when I got there there was the candles, cards and flowers that had been placed beneath the poster.”
The lights, in this container, are Liu Xiaobo’s perpetual incarnation.
“I created a symbol that is good enough to become almost like a memorial site for him after his death,” Badiucao says, and his voice cracks. “Because all the Chinese government want to do is make people forget about them. Even his ash is spread into the sea. They didn’t even give him a gravestone.”
There is perhaps no image of Tiananmen more enduring than that of the “tank man”, an unknown protester who faced off against the Chinese military on the morning after the massacre, holding only a briefcase and a plastic bag.
“The image of the bags from tank man always strikes as if they are his magic weapons to defeat the tanks in front of him,” says Badiucao. In 2016, he performed “a cosplay of the tank man”, celebrating his memory by standing in the middle of downtown Adelaide CBD dressed in a white shirt and armed with his dissident symbols – a briefcase and a plastic bag with the censored image of Peppa Pig.
“The Tank Man [video] is not an artwork,” says Badiucao. “It’s evidence of a crime. It’s evidence of a national crime.”
Badiucao wants to excavate the censored images of an unfiltered China – the subconscious mind of its misrepresented history. “I think political cartoons are a form of journalism,” he says.
I ask about his inspirations and he singles out Francisco Goya. “You can see how his work is gradually decaying into the blackened madness of Spanish reality,” Badiucao says. “He is an important inspiration to me because he is showing that art is more than just beautiful things. Specifically, the painting of the execution, The Third of May 1808.”
The painting depicts a Spanish freedom fighter in a white shirt, facing a column of rifles, his arms stretched out as if pinned to an invisible crucifix. “The guy is almost like Jesus, guarding other people, stopping the bullets. It’s like tank man. Showing people that he is brave enough to protect others by confronting the violence, face-to-face.”
For Badiucao, the power of Goya’s painting and the images of the tank man are more numinous precisely because the characters are simply human. “I don’t think he will rise again,” he says, and it’s not clear of which martyr he speaks. “He has no magic. He suffered the way ordinary people suffer.
“I think being brave is a kind of novelty, it’s not a common trait within everyone. Everyone has the potential, but I don’t believe we must force everyone to be brave,” he says. “That is why when you see people sacrifice themselves, people like the tank man, it’s so inspiring because it’s beyond our nature. It’s something we should celebrate.”
Badiucao recounts a conversation with Ai Wei Wei, while the two were working in Berlin. “He says, ‘You either do it with your real face or you shouldn’t do it at all.’ He will be very direct and blunt.” In the past few weeks, after years hiding behind masks, Badiucao has decided to reveal his face to the world. His name remains secret to shield his family in China from backlash. He only recently revealed his face for the first time, in the documentary China’s Artful Dissident. “The threats are real,” he says. “The worry is necessary.”
He cuts the power to the Liu Xiaobo effigy. “Silence won’t bring you peace. Disappearance won’t bring you peace. The Chinese government don’t forget, don’t forgive,” he says, rolling another cigarette, this one with the weight of a cigar. “I know I will reveal myself; I don’t want to disappear.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Wave of protest ". Subscribe here.