Rebel Pepper, China's most notorious political cartoonist, fled his native land for Japan. But life in exile is tougher than he expected.
TOKYO — On June 24, Chinese political cartoonist Wang Liming, better known as Rebel Pepper, tweeted about the scariest nightmare he ever had. He found himself surrounded by seven or eight people, secret agents sent by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to arrest him. Their leader, Colonel Light, demanded that Rebel Pepper leave Japan with them; when he refused, they threatened to push him off a balcony. Soon, Japanese police arrived and surrounded the building, but Colonel Light and his men floated away ominously. Rebel woke up that morning, afraid for his life. Having left China for Japan, Rebel had thought that his nightmares would end. But they only grew more absurd, more crazed, more intense.
Rebel started drawing political cartoons in 2009, and chose the pen name biantai lajiao, or Perverse Pepper in Chinese; Rebel Pepper came from the recommendation of a Taiwanese friend, who thought it sounded good in English. Often, Rebel draws himself into the cartoon, as the Pepper — a sometimes sad, sometimes oblivious, sometimes lascivious chili, with large, intense eyes. One cartoon, from February 2012, features a smiling Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, standing on a heap of skeletons and hiding behind two doors featuring a menacing polar bear (Russia) and panda (China.) In the upper right-hand corner, the Pepper smiles — a blithe and uncaring bystander — and flashes a thumbs-up.
Over the last few years, his cartoons — of China’s blighting air pollution filling the sky, of an obese man bloodily smothering dissent while smoking a cigar, of Mao Zedong boasting of his victim count to Islamic State leaders — have become steadily more subversive. Despite his polite, almost deferential demeanor, the moniker “Rebel” fits him well. He’s probably China’s best-known political cartoonist, and certainly the one most critical of the ruling Communist Party. In China, Rebel had grown notorious for satirizing China’s increasingly authoritarian President Xi Jinping — Rebel has drawn Xi as a steamed dumpling and as a shirtless post-coital smoker in bed with a young man — and, Rebel told me, he realized that he had to leave Beijing or risk facing a long spell in prison.
Originally, Rebel had planned to make his way to New York City after returning from a long holiday in Japan in mid-2014. But in late July 2014, two major Chinese media companies, Sina and Tencent, deleted Rebel’s microblog accounts on their sites, on which he had close to 1 million followers. His page on Baidu Encyclopedia, which resembles a Chinese version of Wikipedia, was also removed, as was a store he had opened on the Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao. Most ominously, a pseudonymous article calling for the “relevant authorities” to “investigate and deal with” Rebel had been gaining traction on the Chinese Internet. Having spent a night in detention in October 2013, the 42-year-old Rebel was disinclined to repeat the experience. Rebel, who looks like a cross between a punk skater and an accountant, changed his vacation to Japan into a self-imposed exile. In October 2014, he held a wedding ceremony with his girlfriend at a church in Osaka recommended by another Chinese activist. (Rebel and his girlfriend had been officially married several months before in Tokyo.) He found a position as a visiting scholar at Saitama University, north of Tokyo.
But Rebel says the Japanese government has refused to grant him political asylum — and, in fact, seems to prefer that he just quietly move to another country. His visa, for “cultural exchange,” expires in December. Rebel, who prefers shorts to pants, speaks carefully and passionately, and smiles surprisingly easily, is unsure whether it will be renewed. Although the university offered him free Japanese classes and subsidized rent, Rebel told me, there was no stipend or salary. Money soon ran short, and in May, Rebel abashedly tweeted to his more than 110,000 followers asking for donations to help him get over what he described to me as his “economic crisis.”
“I started to feel very disappointed,” Rebel told me one night in June over dinner at a nearly deserted noodle shop in central Tokyo. “I looked for work, but it was hard, because I don’t speak Japanese.” He wore a white dress shirt and old-fashioned glasses oddly reminiscent of the clunky style favored by older Chinese leaders, and appeared endearingly grateful for his situation. “I might have been in jail,” he said.
And yet, although Sino-Japanese tensions remain high — on Sept. 3rd, Beijing is hosting a military parade celebrating Japanese defeat in World War II, which has angered Tokyo — Rebel’s adapted home hasn’t offered him the protection he feels he needs. In his June 24 tweet, Rebel expressed surprise that, after living in exile in Japan for more than a year, party “special operatives would still murder me in my dreams. Words can’t describe the helplessness I felt.” At the end of the post he affixed an emoticon with tears gushing out of its eyes.
In Japan, Rebel joins a minuscule community of Chinese dissidents. Zhao Nan, a formerly prominent democracy activist, guesses just a few dozen people — of the roughly 1 million Chinese in Japan at any given time — are involved in pro-democracy groups, with some others are working on the rights of Chinese minorities like the Uighurs.
But Zhao’s numbers are probably too optimistic. “We’re a guerrilla force,” Liu Yanzi, a 45-year-old translator and lecturer in Chinese at Kwansei Gakuin University in Osaka, and the friend who helped arrange Rebel and his wife’s wedding, told me. “And we’re probably fewer than the number of pandas in zoos.”
In many ways, Japan seems like it should be the perfect host for Chinese dissidents. In a Pew Research Center opinion survey released in late June, 89 percent of Japanese polled said they have an unfavorable view of China, by far the highest percentage of any of the dozens of countries surveyed. Some Japanese politicians speak openly about democratizing China, while others call for destabilizing it. And the two countries’ economic entanglement — China is Japan’s largest trading partner — makes travel between them relatively easy. There are roughly a dozen daily direct flights from Tokyo, clocking in at under four hours. While Japan is more expensive than China, its cities rank among the world’s most livable.
Besides, Rebel and his fellow Chinese activists are far safer in Japan. “There’s no way I would go back to China,” Duan Yuezhong, who runs a publishing house that puts out a wide variety of Chinese books translated into Japanese, but who doesn’t consider himself a dissident, told me. “We don’t have a propaganda department here. I can publish whatever I want.”
Yet for Rebel and others, they cannot help but think that Japan doesn’t want them there, it just feels too embarrassed to tell them so. Japanese citizenship is extremely difficult for foreigners to get; Zhao only received a passport in 2008. Wang Jinzhong, a freelance journalist and democracy activist who is unrelated to Rebel and who has lived in Japan since 1987, is effectively stateless. “I don’t have a Chinese passport or a Japanese passport,” he tells me. Instead, he has a Japanese ID card, which allows him to function domestically. When he travels overseas, which he says he does on average a few times a year, a government department provides him with a travel document that allows safe transit.
The lack of a community of like-minded brethren, coupled with official coldness, can be disheartening. “I did the Tiananmen thing here, but there were very few other people,” Rebel said, referring to a recent commemoration, outside the Chinese embassy in Japan, of the Chinese government’s 1989 slaughter of protesters. The police far outnumbered protesters, and Rebel left, feeling a bit silly.
“Japan doesn’t welcome foreigners,” Zhao tells me. “And foreigners can’t be political activists. When we do democracy promotion activities, we run into trouble.” Zhao claims that the Chinese listen to his cell-phone calls and that the Japanese have tapped his landline. He knows this, he says, because the line makes a sound when he discusses sensitive topics and because Chinese and Japanese interlocutors have referenced things he has said in private telephone conversations. (The Chinese embassy in Japan and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
That’s not to say that the isolation and the new environment don’t have their benefits. “I have a friend who got political asylum in Los Angeles and then realized to his dismay that there were so many patriotic Chinese there!” Rebel told me. “He said, ‘I left China to get away from these people, and now here they are!’” Rebel feels like he’s growing as a cartoonist and as a thinker — “raising his level,” as he put it, as he continues the slow process of sloughing off what he describes as the unavoidable self-censorship that came from his life in China. “The advice people have given me, and I feel really bad saying this, is get away from a Chinese circle.”
On June 13, I accompanied Rebel on a protest at the Japanese Diet, the country’s national legislature. Thousands of people were marching against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s moves to expand the scope of Japan’s military activity. Rebel had drawn a cartoon featuring a cowered Abe surrounded by protesters. Xi — wearing a machine gun belt, his waist festooned with bullets, his hand brandishing a missile — looms in the background, as does his squinting sidekick, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a way, he was protesting the protesters. “I have a problem with [the Japanese] right wing — and the left wing,” he told me.
As the Japanese protesters walked by Rebel, who proudly and somewhat shyly held up his cartoon, some took photos and some flashed him the thumbs-up sign. Several other political cartoonists were in attendance. An aged hippie, carrying a cartoon depicting Abe as a vampire, offered a friendly grunt to Rebel. “Hey, look, Abe drawn as Hitler,” Rebel said, gesturing to another cartoon, which depicted the Japanese leader with that trademark mustache. “I heard that a Chinese student was recently arrested for depicting Xi as Hitler,” Rebel said, shaking his head.
Soon after we arrived at the protest, a Chinese IT professional and peace activist introduced himself, giving his surname as Wang (also unrelated to Rebel). We all expressed surprise at the gentleness with which the police handled the demonstration. It was a calm and well-regulated affair. The police loudspeakers were telling the crowd of mostly older protesters that if they felt ill, they should find a seat where they might rest or let the police know, so that they could offer assistance. “Japan is a fairly quiet country, and I guess the protests are like that as well,” Rebel said. Wang, who moved to Japan not long after the 1989 Tiananmen protests, agreed. “It’s not like there are going to be tanks,” he said.
Still, Wang opposed the cartoonist’s criticism of Xi, and of China. “I think your view is too basic,” Wang told Rebel. A former party member, Wang said that those outside the political system don’t have the ability to speak intelligently about politics. “That guy, although he’s been out of China for decades, he still defends it,” Rebel wrote me in an email after the protest. “It’s lamentable.”
China is the biggest country of origin for foreigners in Japan. According to Ippei Torii, the secretary-general of the NGO Solidarity Network With Migrants Japan, 648,000 registered Chinese are living in Japan, though the actual number is almost certainly higher. In general, it’s difficult for Chinese not working in the IT sector to get visas, he told me. And for political dissidents — Chinese or otherwise — it’s nearly impossible. Out of 5,000 applicants for political asylum in 2014, he told me, only 11 were recognized. None were Chinese. “As far as I know, the Japanese policy on asylum and refugee seekers is a really harsh one,” Kanae Doi, Japan director for Human Rights Watch, told me. “And the treatment of Chinese dissidents has been particularly harsh.”
Ask why, and one gets a variation of answers that highlight Japan’s differences from the United States. Keisuke Suzuki, a Diet member from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, said that while Japan should accept Chinese dissidents, it needs to “be wise enough” to consider the long view. “China will be a neighbor country to Japan forever,” he said. And a senior government official, who asked to speak on background so that he could speak freely, said, “Japan has no tendency to embarrass China just for the sake of embarrassing them.”
Indeed, the United States is probably the only country with both the willingness and the ability to provoke the ruling Chinese Communist Party by enabling dissidents, both inside and outside China. From the CIA’s clandestine support of Tibetan freedom fighters in the 1950s and 1960s, to its rescuing of blind activist Chen Guangcheng in May 2012, the United States has a long history of supporting the cause of freedom and democracy — or meddling in China’s internal affairs, depending on whom one asks. Takashi Oshima, an associate editor on the foreign news desk of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest and most influential newspapers, said that the Chen story was a big one in Japan, but was not played up in the same way it was in the United States. Japanese media “wants to know more about a variety of issues,” he said rather blandly.
Far from being celebrated, Chinese dissidents in Japan often find themselves scrambling for consistent work. To earn money, the Tiananmen-era dissident Zhao buys and sells old Chinese books in and around Tokyo. I asked whether he earns enough to make a living. “It’s enough to keep going,” he told me, sounding only a little bitter. After more than a year of struggling to get by, in August, Rebel emailed to tell me that his economic situation has improved. Besides donations, he has a contract to draw cartoons for the Japanese edition of Newsweek and for Shincho 45, a magazine affiliated with one of Japan’s oldest publishing houses. He draws on a freelance basis for several other media outlets and is contemplating a book of satirical portraits of top Chinese party officials.
But Junko Oikawa, a visiting scholar at Hosei University in Tokyo and a friend of the cartoonist, tells me she worries about the intellectual sacrifices Rebel has had to make for money. Japanese right-wing publications want his cartoons to be virulently against the Chinese Communist Party, and against Xi, because they think that sells papers. “If those are what he actually wants to draw, that’s fine,” said Oikawa, who has translated the works of some prominent Chinese dissidents, including imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, into Japanese. But she worries that Rebel is being used.
Japan’s inhospitality is all the more striking because of the role it used to play sheltering Chinese dissidents and exiles. Perhaps the first Chinese to live in exile in Japan — though the story is possibly apocryphal — was Xu Fu, the court sorcerer of Qin Shihuang, the man who first unified China, in 221 B.C. Qin tasked Xu with scouring the world in search of an elixir that would give the emperor eternal life. Failing to find it and fearing the wrath of Qin, Xu took refuge in Japan instead.
Most famously, Sun Yat-sen, seen in mainland China as the father of the Chinese Revolution, spent 16 years in exile in Japan before assuming the presidency of the first republic of China in 1912. Joining Sun was a who’s who of important turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese: The radical historian Liang Qichao, whom Chinese Communist strongman Mao Zedong said he “worshipped,” fled to Japan in 1898. A co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu, lived there too, as did Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who in 1949 lost a bloody civil war to the Communists and took the remnants of his army and government to Taiwan. By weakening Chiang’s Nationalist Army with a devastating war, Tokyo served as an (inadvertent) kingmaker, paving the way for Mao and his People’s Liberation Army to seize control of China. “Japan was the home of the Chinese revolution,” Akio Takahara, a China expert at the University of Tokyo, told me.
With regional tensions high these days, Tokyo is cautious about the perception that it interferes in Chinese domestic affairs. Still uneasy about its wartime aggression, Japan “doesn’t foster anti-government movements, especially when it comes to China,” the senior Japanese government official said. “Japan has a bad history of intervening in continental affairs, and I think there’s consensus to not do it again,” he said.
Since Rebel left China, he has tried to reason out his views on Beijing and its future. He told me that street protests are the only thing that can force change in China, though he is not planning to organize them himself. “Insulting the party, too many people are doing that!” he said. “The people they attack the hardest are those who form organizations, form parties.”
Rebel said his contacts have told his name is on an official Chinese blacklist, ranked from A to H. The Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of the Uighurs in exile, Rebiya Kadeer, are ranked A. Rebel thinks that satirizing Xi earned him a spot on the list. He’s curious where he ranks, and people have told him that he has a high spot, but he doesn’t know where. “This cartoonist, once he grows bigger and bigger,” the senior government official said, “it’ll be interesting” to see what Tokyo does. “I don’t think Tokyo sees another Sun Yat-sen coming in. If we do, that’s the moment of truth. But until then, we don’t give anyone the Sun Yat-sen treatment.”
Before Rebel left China, he’d find himself waking up with the same familiar Stalinist nightmare: the police knocking on his door in the middle of the night, coming to take him away. Rebel had always been interested in China’s wide varieties of prisons — its detention centers, its jails, its “reform through labor” farms — and he says he has read “a huge amount” of prison memoirs. This intimate knowledge of the dark side of the party, he said, is one of the reasons he was so “deeply fearful” of being arrested and why the nightmare would occur with frequency. And yet, he seemed shocked that in Tokyo the nightmares haven’t gone away.
On June 24, the same day he wrote about his Japan nightmare, Rebel tweeted a cartoon he drew in support of Atena Farghadani, an Iranian artist sentenced to more than 12 years in prison, in part for a cartoon she drew depicting members of Iranian parliament as animals. In Rebel’s cartoon, Farghadani balefully stares out from a prison cell. Below the cell hangs a drawing of one of the Iranian parliamentarians that Farghadani satirized as an animal, with the word “Evidence.” In a nearby prison cell, Rebel’s avatar, that mischievous pepper, grasps the prison bars and looks fearfully in her direction. His cell also features a drawing and the word “Evidence” below it: a brutal Xi, drawn with a face that looks like it would fit on a torturer in a medieval European prison — the type who would shiver with ecstasy at the sound of a broken bone.
At a dinner party this year, Hosei University’s Junko Oikawa listened to Rebel describe one of his frequent China dreams: about police asking him to “drink tea,” a euphemism for being invited to one’s own interrogation, and about them knocking on the door late in the night to take him away. “Although his body is free, his spirit is still trapped in this state of dread,” she told me. “At least he’s safe here,” Oikawa remembers thinking to herself. “At least he’s safe.”
Travel for this article was supported by the nonprofit Japan Center for International Exchange.
Image credit: Wang Liming