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Arts

Satirical cartoonist Badiucao feels Beijing's ire in Australia

Hong Kong protesters embrace artist's graphic commentary on city standoff

Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao waves his "Lennon Wall" flag, which he created as a symbol of Hong Kong's freedom, at a conference in Melbourne on Sept. 4.   © Getty Images

BANGKOK -- From his home in Melbourne, the Chinese artist known as Badiucao has provided searing graphic commentary on the political turmoil in Hong Kong that has embarrassed and enraged the Chinese Communist Party.

His latest work, a flag composed of 96 squares, numerically symbolizes Hong Kong's freedom before its return to Chinese rule in 1997 with reference to the "Lennon Walls" of colorful Post-it notes put up around the city by supporters of the ongoing anti-government protests.

Other recent works include challenging, emotive images of Chinese dissidents and of Junius Ho, a Hong Kong lawmaker allegedly linked to a train station attack on anti-government protesters by gangsters in July.

Badiucao's depiction of Ho with a penis for a nose follows earlier provocations such as drawings of Chinese President Xi Jinping clad in black and holding a rifle and Mao Zedong having sex with a kangaroo.

For years, Badiucao kept his identity secret to protect himself and his relatives in China from reprisals by Beijing. Now even Australia seems too close to China for safety.

“Hi world, this is a portrait for Jenital Ho” (Courtesy of Badiucao)

In June, aware that the Chinese police had discovered his identify, Badiucao allowed his face to appear publicly on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

"I decided to reveal my face in my documentary 'China's Artful Dissident' because I didn't think I would be safer if I silenced myself," Badiucao told the Nikkei Asian Review. "I'm on the target list of Beijing. They will always make trouble for me."

Badiucao's real name and history remain out of the public domain. But that, he says, is no longer much protection.

"In Australia, I have experienced [being followed], suspicious cars outside of my residence, a possible home invasion," Badiucao said. "The investigation is still ongoing. The situation is really intense. It's quite intimidating."

Badiucao, who grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Shanghai, became involved in Chinese politics almost by chance when he and several schoolmates inadvertently downloaded a forbidden documentary about the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

He became particularly enamored with the image of "Tank Man," the unidentified protester who stood in the way of a line of tanks entering the square to clear student demonstrators. Badiucao has the scene tattooed on his right arm.

After years of keeping his identity a secret, Badiucao allowed his face to appear publicly in June, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.     © Getty Images

At 23, Badiucao moved to Adelaide, Australia, to pursue a master's degree in education, and went on to teach preschoolers while drawing in his spare time. The Chinese social media service Weibo became the first platform for his political art.

Without formal art training, he made his debut online with a cartoon about a train collision that killed 40 people in Wenzhou, China, in 2011, allegedly because of design faults that the government subsequently covered up. Releasing regular cartoons and satirical works on the platform, the artist joined California-based China Digital Times as a contributing cartoonist in 2013.

An image of a Hong Kong policeman (Courtesy of Badiucao)

"Five or six years ago, I decided to concentrate on my art full time," said Badiucao. By 2016, he had had Weibo accounts banned more than 30 times, so he took his work to Twitter and Instagram. He now has more than 67,000 followers across the two services and makes a living by publishing his work and selling art on his website and at exhibitions.

It became apparent that trouble was catching up with him last year when he was compelled to cancel his first international solo exhibition in Hong Kong after the Chinese authorities interrogated one of his relatives and threatened to send officials to the show.

The threats have now spread to Australia, where Badiucao, author Louisa Lim and pop singer Denise Ho recently had problems finding a venue willing to host a panel forum on art and political resistance. The group, which blamed the difficulty on Chinese pressure, eventually staged the meeting at the Melbourne City Conference Center with a police guard.

"It's kind of terrifying. It's upsetting. I'm frustrated," said Badiucao. "I escaped China and all this kind of ultranationalism. I left China for a safe and relatively free environment in Australia. But this idea has been smashed to pieces."

"Carrie Lam's Legacy" (Courtesy of Badiucao)

The protests in Hong Kong have put the cartoonist firmly in the spotlight again as protesters have warmed to his acerbic artistic commentary on Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong police and other figures from the standoff in the city. Some of his images have been carried by protest marchers.

In early August, pro-China demonstrators tore down art made by Hong Kong students and other protest supporters in Melbourne, intimidating the Hong Kongers by filming them and aggressively singing the Chinese national anthem.

Similar events have occurred elsewhere in Australia, including at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. At the University of Technology Sydney, Chinese nationalists posted the threatening message, "Take back your Hong Kong independence speech if you don't want to die."

Said Badiucao: "They are hardcore, pro-China kids that come from very rich families in China. They are just a tiny group, but because they are very loud, they give this [outsize] impression to the whole world."

Yet he is empathetic too. "For those kids who just came [to Australia] fresh out of high school, they don't have a good idea of politics," he said. "So naturally, they just join the groups and sing the national song. Because I certainly know when you are in a group it's very easy to lose yourself with passion."

"Little Pink and Deep Red": An Australian Broadcasting Corp. cameraman in China's grip (Courtesy of Badiucao)

But claiming that the majority of Chinese overseas students are too afraid to speak out, Badiucao suggested that Australian universities have become too reliant on income from Chinese students and are being cowed into silence.

"Kids like us do not feel safe to express ourselves even so far from China," he said. "I understand how scary it can be. When I was a student away from China, I felt manipulated and I felt watched by those pro-China institutions," he said, referring to government-supported Confucius Institutes, which provide language training, and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, an official state organization for those studying overseas.

"The West should take responsibility by protecting the Chinese students who want to think differently," Badiucao said. "When society only sees the violence from Chinese nationalists, they assume that is all of us. That can create discrimination [against] the whole Chinese community of Australia.

"It will make people say, 'Look, Chinese people are different, they only love their own country. They can't fit in with democracy and freedom like everyone else,'" he said. "This actually helps the CCP."

Badiucao said he will continue to create art to reflect the times he lives in, but wants to move away from the imagery of the Hong Kong protests and to focus more on humor and optimism.

"This is the situation of Sisyphus, pushing the rock up a hill that is doomed to always fall down," he said. "The rock is Beijing and Hong Kong is this hero who keeps repeating mission impossible."

"However, I still have hope. Because of the protests, Hong Kong will have a whole new generation of radical thinkers. Those are the ones who are giving hope to our future."

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