I am an arm-chair revolutionary. I shout at the TV and radio and lot and disagree with a lot that is going on in UK politics at the moment. However, in the UK, that’s no big deal. Its quite normal, in fact. However, in most countries around the world, free speech is a luxury and political comment or protest can be extremely dangerous for artists and their families. Badiucao (巴丢草) is a Chinese political cartoonist, who lives in self-imposed exile in Australia. The young artist, like Banksy, hides his identity with a pseudonym. Badiucao is an alias and he also hides his face by wearing a mask at public exhibitions of his work in Australia and the West. The reason for this secrecy is that his work is very provocative and much of it champions human rights causes. In China having strong opinions can land you in prison or at best under house arrest. I was ignorant of his existence until I heard him being interviewed on the radio (BBC World Service) last week.
He built his reputation on social media, though he pulled out of Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, when it began to be heavily censored, and now ranges energetically across platforms, including performance art space and galleries. This year he painted, in Melbourne, in Hosier Lane, a double full-length portrait of Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, with his wife Liu Xia, just before the human rights activist died in prison on July 13. Liu Xia is currently under house arrest.
Badiucao uses satire and pop culture references to get his point across. He often manipulates archetypal images from Communist Party propaganda to make subversive political statements. His work has been used by Amnesty International, Freedom House, BBC, CNN and China Digital Times; and has been exhibited around the world. Although he lives most of his life outside of China, he says that means he has a better understanding of events inside China because he has full access to uncensored media and the internet.
His cartooning technique also borrows from printmaking, he says, and from an older generation of Chinese propaganda. He favours black and red: “China’s complexion … iron and blood”.
Dictators and autocrats famously have no sense of humour and can’t stand being laughed at. President Xi Jinping is no different and cartoon images of Chinese leaders are banned in mainland China. One popular image Badiucao uses is that of Winnie the Pooh, whom apparently has more than a passing resemblance to the Chinese President.
He says “It’s not hard to become a political cartoonist from China because there are only five or six others” — the best-known being 44-year-old Wang Liming, who draws under the name Rebel Pepper and also had to leave China. Wang now lives in the US.
His political work has come at great personal cost. Badiucao has recently given up his Chinese citizenship after he gained Australian citizenship as China does not allow its people to hold dual citizenship. Although he’s out of reach of the Chinese authorities he is still very protective of his identity in case the authorities turn their attention to his friends or family in mainland China.
Its hasn’t gotten any easier being a dissident artist. Badiucao was due to have an exhibition in Hong Kong, but it has been called off after threats made by Chinese authorities. His show was part of events examining free speech in Hong Kong since the 2014 pro-democracy “umbrella” protests. Badiucao had also been due to take part in a question and answer session at the opening alongside pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong and members of Russia’s feminist protest band Pussy Riot.
The Hong Kong is a “special administrative region”, and although Hong Kong’s system of government is separate from that of mainland China, it is clearly not immune to threats from Beijing. The cancellation comes as a timely illustration of the claims by pro-democracy activists that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being eroded by mainland China.