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China’s Rebel Cartoonist Unmasks
Badiucao's work has brought him praise from critics — and threats from Beijing.
In October 2018, just weeks before his first exhibit in Hong Kong was set to open, the Chinese Australian political cartoonist who goes by the pseudonym Badiucao received an urgent call from a contact.
The mainland-born Badiucao, who started drawing in 2011, had long maintained complete anonymity. Chinese authorities had discovered his real identity and had tracked down his family in mainland China. The officials indicated that they would be sending representatives to the exhibit, which Badiucao and exhibit co-hosts Amnesty International and the Hong Kong Free Press understood as a security threat. They canceled the show. It was the latest blow to freedom of expression in the semi-autonomous city, which since 2014 has seen its traditional political freedoms steadily eroded under the growing influence of China.
A new documentary by Australian filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe, released today in Australia, chronicles Badiucao’s art and the dramatic backstory of the exhibit’s cancellation. The cartoonist’s most iconic work is a series he did when the Chinese pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was released from prison in 2017 for treatment for terminal liver cancer. Briefly reunited with his wife, Liu Xia, he died just weeks after his release.
Badiucao’s simple sketches show Liu Xiaobo in a prison uniform, embracing his wife in one frame, then floating up to heaven in the next. The drawings were widely shared around the world, becoming an emblem of Liu’s life, love, and death. Badiucao also does performance art; in one notable work in 2016, he dressed up as “tank man,” the figure in the famous photo from the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square who stood in front of a line of tanks.
A Gallery of Protest Art
Badiucao has worked for years to keep his identity a secret out of fear of reprisal from the Chinese government, remaining anonymous and never allowing photos of his face to be published. He also has concealed his art from his family, with whom he has cut off contact. The documentary reveals his face for the first time.
Foreign Policy spoke with Badiucao about his art, his family, and his hope for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: How did this documentary come about?
Badiucao: It was initiated by director Danny Ben-Moshe, a filmmaker based in Melbourne. He contacted me by Twitter direct message.
I’m always very careful when people approach me that way. For me it’s always a balance between the potential risk but also the opportunity to deliver my message.
We started to talk, and I met him in Melbourne in the middle of 2017. That’s how we started. It’s not an easy journey, as you can see, because I was worried that maybe my identity could be compromised.
So we did a lot of preparing, including thinking about how to cover my identity but also tell my story. As you can see from the film, until the last moment, revealing my identity was never the plan. It’s directly associated with what happened in Hong Kong, before the cancellation. That is why for the entire film it’s like, this guy isn’t going to reveal his face. It wasn’t intentional to put it at the end. We weren’t trying to create a major conflict at the end. In that way it’s really real to everyone.
I think the risk [of being kidnapped while in Hong Kong] is getting real. We used to worry that Hong Kong was an egg on the table, and the mainland is rocking the table and the egg is falling on the ground at any moment. Now I see the egg is already on its way to hitting the ground.
FP: When you say reveal your identity, you don’t reveal your real name. You’re still not making that public?
B: I’m worried about what the Chinese community in Australia or in China would do. [So-called human flesh searches, where online groups mob somebody involved in scandal or dissent, have been common in China.] There is so much ultranationalism in China and also outside of China, even in the Australian Chinese community. But giving up my name might bring unnecessary trouble.
But I don’t know if that’s possible, because maybe the Chinese government will leak all my information intentionally in order to put pressure on me. I can only do the best I can. But I’m happy to introduce a bit of the life of my grandparents.
I never met my grandpa or grandma, but their lives shadowed me and also inspired me. My grandpa and his brother, my great-uncle, were famous filmmakers in China. They were very active from the 1930s to the 1950s, until the anti-intellectual movement, the “let a hundred flowers bloom” movement. Both of them got into trouble with the films that they made. My grandpa was sentenced to a concentration camp in the far west.
My grandpa died in the camp. We never knew what caused his death. It was the time of the great famine, the Great Leap Forward—the whole country was suffering from shortage of food. Most probably he died out of food and sickness. He was around his 40s when he died—my grandmother died several years later.
So political terror was in my family. My great-uncle drowned himself in the Yangtze River for the same reason, because of political persecution because of his film. They weren’t even producing dissident art, it wasn’t criticizing the government, but their films didn’t entirely fit in with the propaganda requirements.
The most problematic film was almost like a Chinese Titanic story. The story is about a [Chinese Communist Party] member who is supposed to become the hero and save everyone on the boat. So the film depicted that hero with some human difficulties—he was not brave straight away, he could be selfish but overcame everything and finally sacrificed himself. But showing the humane element of the character became the problem. It seems like the CCP only likes robot heroes. You have to be brave all the way from the very beginning to the end.
This kind of horror and tragedy hovers in my story, in my family, and now I’m repeating the same destiny as they do. But I think I’m doing it for a very good reason.
I’m doing it to prevent the future generation from having to go through that. We have to seek change and difference, and my way is my art. I want to use my art to maybe be a part of change in the future.
FP: Do you have hope that things could be different in the future?
B: I always have hope in human beings. No matter what kind of environment we are set in, no matter what kind of brainwashed system we grow up in, we are flexible. We have the potential to be the better version of ourselves, as long as we are given the right environment, without fear.
Unfortunately in China, there is no such environment. Even outside of China, the overseas Chinese population is controlled by Beijing. But I always have hope that if we can change even a little bit, if we can give people the right environment, they will always wake up, they will always be able to tell what is better.
My personal hero would be French philosopher Albert Camus’s hero, Sisyphus pushing his rock. But I see the meaning in that gesture, and that’s very much what I am doing now. I never know if my work will actually form a change. But I know this is the right thing to do—I tend to not ask the result. If after all nothing really changed within my generation, with my art at least I am providing a personal record of the history. As long as the record remains, remembered by people, then there is a seed of hope.
So I will never lose my hope, even though defeat is so obvious.
FP: How did you come to support democracy and rule of law—and not only supporting them but also risking your safety for what you believe in?
B: I believe in universal human rights. I don’t think the system of Western democracy or especially capitalism is really the flawless system for human beings. It’s not perfect. But compared with how China runs, it is much better.
I think also there are many things echoing with Chinese culture in this idea that human rights are important. Confucian theory says people are more important than the king. There are this kind of quotes living in the Chinese blood, the Chinese culture.
Recently the American government said that the clash between American and China is a “civilizational” conflict. It’s very important to point out that this kind of judgment is wrong. It legitimizes the CCP as the leaders of Chinese culture. But for me, if you read history you find that communist culture is actually a Western thing, it comes from Germany, it comes from Karl Marx.
If you read the modern history of the Communist Party, you can see how they have destroyed every aspect of traditional culture, from wiping out the traditional ruling class in China to the anti-intellectual movement to the Cultural Revolution. After all those decades of destroying, now because the Communist Party finds nationalism important and the culture is a very good thing for soft power, now they say they are the true representative of Chinese?
If you want to see true Chinese culture, maybe see it in Hong Kong, in Taiwan, in Singapore. When we talk about Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, you see the possibility that merged between two cultures’ ideology and social systems. You see the progress in those countries, like the gay marriage legislation passed in Taiwan. It’s not a perfect democratic system, but it’s growing up, it’s getting more mature and workable. And it will only get better if they can get rid of the interference from the mainland.
Among Chinese abroad, it’s a vicious cycle. The less people are able to criticize China, the more people will actually stand on the side of China. Eventually the backlash in Australian society will be also ugly. It gives the far-right an excuse to discriminate against the Chinese population—they will never distinguish the Chinese government from its people, they will just say the Chinese are represented by the CCP and responsible for its behavior. And that will marginalize even more the Chinese community in Australia and also in other countries.
And that’s what Beijing wants. They want their overseas population to be marginalized in society. Communist China loves racism against its own people outside of China. It gives them the opportunity to unite the overseas population and sell the point that, you will only be protected and safe when you have a strong motherland.
I see it completely differently. I think we can only be safe and respected by being more included in where we are. We can only be safe if the government respects the Chinese population, gives opportunities to us, and lets us be more represented in society, in art, politics, or other aspects. Only then will we grow a sense of belonging to the local society, and that is the best way to counter the interference from Beijing.
FP: What is the most meaningful cartoon that you have created?
B: I think it’s the Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia image. I love it because it’s so simple, and I never expected it to go global like that. It’s perfectly fitting to my idea of how we defend against censorship in China by recreating a message. A very simple line works. If people still recognize it, then that image somehow, in the form of my cartoon, lives a little bit longer inside of China, it almost becomes a symbol for them. Recently one of Liu Xiaobo’s books was published in Japan. That little cartoon become a part of the cover design. I’m really proud of that work.
All we need is something that simple. And it grows.