china

China’s Most Controversial Cartoonist Fears He Could Disappear at Any Moment

It's been a year since the Chinese Government uncovered Badiucao's identity. Since then, the Melbourne-based artist has been the victim of stalking, cyber attacks, and a possible home invasion.

by Gavin Butler
28 October 2019, 9:45pm

All images supplied

Anyone else would have taken them for four Asian businessmen, but Badiucao is pretty sure they were spies. All of them were wearing the same corporate outfit, all sporting the same Bluetooth earpieces, and when they boarded the bus on the outskirts of Melbourne they all sat in what appeared to be a prearranged formation around Badiucao: one in front, one behind, and two opposite. At that point, he recalls, he was “very much in their pocket.”

“I chose to get off the bus before my destination, because I wanted to see if they were following me or not,” he says. “And two of them got off and followed me into Woolworths.”

Badiucao stayed in the supermarket for 45 minutes until he’d made sure the men had left. “It was terrifying,” he admits. “But I didn’t show fear. I walked directly at them with my camera, and they kind of went away after that.”

“It’s important to take photos to have [these guys on] record,” he adds. “Like, I need to know who they are.”

Badiucao

Badiucao has a right to be skittish. The 33-year-old, Chinese-born, Melbourne-based artist is well-known as far as dissidents go. Since his identity was leaked in November last year he’s given up on wearing a mask, and speculates that his “weird beard” probably makes him easy to identify on the street—a problem for someone who regularly receives death threats and who, over the past eight years, has slowly but surely cemented his status as a public enemy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In reality his spade-like beard is more Castro-esque than “weird”, and between that, his leather coat, and his olive green button-up, he looks the part of a bona fide revolutionary. It does make him easy to spot, despite the fact that—at his insistence—we’re meeting in the bustling heart of Melbourne’s CBD.

This rendezvous was arranged covertly via an encrypted messaging app, and when we finally sit down for our interview it’s in a cluttered, noisy cafe. Badiucao talks quietly. It’s hard to tell whether he’s softly spoken or just hypersensitive to the fact that someone, anyone, might be listening in.

“They’re following me in my personal life,” he says. “And it’s all happening close to significant announcements to do with either my documentary or my art.”

China’s Artful Dissident

Badiucao artwork

Cut from the same cloth as his contemporary countryman Ai Weiwei, Badiucao has made a name for himself speaking out against the Chinese government. Although his body of work encompasses painting, sculpture, and performance art, it’s his cartoons that have earned him his iconoclastic reputation: lampooning surveillance, censorship, and the Chinese police state.

One drawing shows Mao Zedong sodomising a kangaroo; another shows Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam with a pistol to her head. At least half a dozen play off the alleged resemblance between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh. Almost all of them are inflammatory.

In recent years, as China’s global influence has approached a state of critical mass, images like these have seen Badiucao celebrated as a sort of Chinese Banksy: a faceless, counter-cultural resistance fighter, skewering the powers that be with black humour and a razor-sharp wit. It’s a level of celebrity that has its downsides, and skittish, softly spoken Badiucao mostly gives off the air of a reluctant hero. At times though, he also seems to relish in the flickering limelight of semi-anonymous stardom—especially when it comes to his role as a self-proclaimed figurehead of the Hong Kong protests.

“My work is very much recognised by the Hong Kong people now,” he tells me. “If you see my daily records of social media, my cartoons will have thousands of likes and thousands of retweets—and I know most of them are from there.”

Badiucao feels something of a spiritual connection to Hong Kong, having been all but exiled from the region in 2018 for his anti-CCP artworks. But his deep-seated passion for the cause behind the movement—of pushing back and calling out the tyranny of the Chinese government—is something he’s carried with him for decades.

Born in Shanghai in 1986, Badiucao was just a 21-year-old student at the East China University of Political Science and Law when he and his dorm mates accidentally watched what they thought was a Taiwanese rom com. But spliced into the middle of the pirated video was a three-hour documentary titled The Gate of Heavenly Peace: a film chronicling the protests and subsequent massacres that took place at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

That footage—of students the same age as him being gunned down by their own country’s military—triggered something in Badiucao. Disillusioned with the China he’d grown up in, he emigrated to Australia in 2009, abandoning his aspirations as a lawyer and turning instead toward artistic pursuits.

It was in 2011 that he first dipped his brush into the genre of political satire: by launching an online campaign via which he solicited dick pics from hundreds of other artists around the world.

Badiucao art

Beijing was hosting a Renaissance art exhibition at the time, Badiucao tells me, and as part of their catalogue they’d acquired a replica statue of Michelangelo’s David. When photos of the statue made it to the front page of the local papers, though, he noticed that the genitals had been completely blacked out.

“I thought: this is so conservative people were okay with this 500 years ago, and yet you still have to cover his penis? So I started an online campaign that invited people to just draw the penis. And that’s how I began everything.”

Badiucao admits this artistic cockfest was more political commentary than pointed activism—but it got the wheels in motion. And from there, things moved quickly.

A collective of politically-minded cartoonists and artists started collaborating with one another and disseminating images on the social media platform Weibo. Badiucao describes them as a “unit, a fellowship group”, most of who worked anonymously for fear of retaliation. Mass surveillance and censorship in China was becoming increasingly austere. Within the space of just a few years, throwing stones at the CCP had become a significantly more dangerous enterprise.

“I started learning that artists who spoke out, like Ai Weiwei, were disappearing. He got kidnapped from an airport and disappeared for 81 days,” Badiucao recalls. “Then I knew people who were seeking political asylum in Australia, because of their campaigning and activism in China, and they told me that police were visiting their family at home, at work; threatening their basic life resources. This isn’t just artists, but dissidents who are criticising the Chinese government in general. Because there are not many artists at all.”

Then, in 2015, Badiucao became the victim of a vicious internet smear campaign. After he released a series of portraits in support of five Chinese feminists who were arrested for speaking out against the government, his Twitter mentions exploded. People were tagging his name, spreading rumours, and concocting damning stories about him. For Badiucao, the whole thing felt like an organised act of intimidation.

“We always say ‘the wolf is coming, the wolf is coming’—but this was the first time I directly experienced the wolf,” he says. “And the only reason that I wasn’t touched directly, and it was just a digital attack, is because they didn’t know who I was yet.”

A Fucking Well-Known Face

Badiucao

It was in November last year that the wolf came knocking for real. Two days before Badiucao was scheduled to present his first international solo exhibition in Hong Kong—an event at which he would field masked interviews from the likes of CNN, BBC, and TIME—he received a call telling him that mainland police had visited his family in China.

“My identity was compromised,” he says. “So the police in China found my family, they threatened them, and then they threatened me. Their request was very simple: just cancel the show.”

Chinese authorities warned that they would send two officers to the exhibition if Badiucao refused to call it off. While mainland police don’t have any official rights or power in Hong Kong, Badiucao notes that “if they say they’re coming, they’re posing a huge threat to everyone on my side.” And so, on the basis of safety concerns, he cancelled.

Six months later, Badiucao spurned the mask and showed his face publicly for the very first time, in a documentary broadcast on Australian television. Titled China's Artful Dissident, the program was produced alongside filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe in the months leading up to Badiucao’s ill-fated Hong Kong exhibition. The initial plan was to maintain the cloak-and-dagger act throughout—but once his family was threatened, Badiucao figured all bets were off. After nearly a decade in the shadows, he decided to finally reveal himself.

“Before this I practiced as an anonymous artist, and I wouldn’t have even met you without a mask,” he tells me. “Now I’m a fucking well-known face.”

In Badiucao’s view, the forced cancellation of his Hong Kong show was a troubling sign of Beijing’s growing authoritarianism—and an augury of things to come. Four months after mainland police intimidated his family, the Hong Kong government attempted to pass a bill that would allow them to extradite criminals and fugitives to mainland China for prosecution under the CCP.

For Hong Kongers, the bill crystallised a growing fear that the supposedly semi-autonomous region was being subsumed under Beijing’s encroaching authoritarianism; that the “one country, two systems” principle was a myth. It was a spark in a powder keg. In the days, weeks, and months after the extradition bill was made public, protests started erupting around the city.

The Anti-Propaganda Group

Badiucao art

Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations have been ongoing for more than a hundred days. Protesters’ demands have widened; the grip of the increasingly militant authorities has tightened; and violent clashes involving bricks, tear gas, petrol bombs, rubber bullets, blunt weapons, and live ammunition have become an almost daily occurrence. People are being beaten, arrested, shot. Ten people have died, at least nine of them by suicide.

In the midst of this raging chaos, the political artists are putting their noses to the grindstone. Badiucao calls them the “anti-propaganda group”: an underground collective consisting of hundreds of painters and cartoonists who work in the shadows, distributing their art to the masses via Telegram chat groups and AirDrop, trying to keep the fire alive. Their work, he says, is the lifeblood of the protests.

“Art is so important,” he says, “because after 100 days, everybody is tired. There’s no clear solution in sight, which means that the protests just have to keep going. Otherwise it’ll all be for nothing.”

As Badiucao sees it, art serves Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in two ways. “One is that it’s comforting people,” he says. “When I do political art, I can draw Carrie Lam as a caricature, which is funny—it deconstructs authority, it empowers people, and it makes people feel encouraged. Then they will have more energy to protest.”

The second function is about getting people’s attention: not just on a local level, but also in terms of the international media and community. After more than 100 days of rallies, clashes, and violent melees, art continually gives the media something new to report on—”which is important,” says Badiucao, “because it’s essential to have more international support.” The revolution will not be televised if it doesn’t remain interesting. But hundreds of people wearing Guy Fawkes masks, plastering themselves in post-it notes, and waving blood-spattered flags and Pepe the Frog posters, all feeds the narrative around the cause and keeps people talking.

Badiucao art

On a more personal level, art has also become a way for Badiucao to “virtually attend” the protests from afar. He regularly uploads his work to the Telegram groups, allowing Hong Kongers there on the ground to print it out, pin it up around the city, or wield it during demonstrations. One piece he’s particularly proud of is his multicoloured Lennon Wall flag, which he says has been used by the Hong Kong community all around the world and celebrated in almost every international rally.

“My work is inspired by the protests every day, and I’m always working according to what’s happening there,” he says. “I create a piece of work, and then that work is used by protesters to continue their fighting. So you see this very organic circle, where we’re just being an inspiration to each other.”

As someone who feels that his personal destiny has become entwined in Hong Kong’s fight for freedom, it’s a way for Badiucao to give back and show his support. Without being able to return there himself, it may in fact be the only way.

No Way Back

Badiucao artwork

Until recently, Badiucao viewed his geographic distance from the subjects he was skewering as artistically empowering. While cartoonists and dissidents in China were worried about speaking out against the authoritarian government in their own country—self-censoring their works and steering clear of provocative subject matter—he mostly enjoyed the privilege of being able to say what he wanted without immediate fear of retribution. Over the past 12 months, though, his view has changed somewhat.

“I’ve come to realise that where you are doesn’t actually matter,” he says. “Even now I’m in Australia, they can still touch me.”

It’s seemingly close encounters like the one in Woolworths that have led Badiucao to this ominous conclusion. And that incident wasn’t an isolated one.

Quietly, he recalls a similar experience when catching a train on his way to meet Ben-Moshe for a private screening of China's Artful Dissident. Badiucao was sitting by himself in an empty carriage when two Asian men sat down in the seat directly opposite him. This time they looked like gangsters, he says, “and they just stared at me. So I stared back. Then I took my phone out and started taking photos and they instantly looked away.”

Once again, Badiucao got out of his seat and alighted from the train before his destination—although in this case he wasn’t followed. Nonetheless, he reflects on the whole incident as “really weird.”

Weirder still is the fact that, around the same time, both he and Ben-Moshe simultaneously lost internet signal on their phones. Badiucao blames the crash on a cyber attack, a theory he says was later confirmed by Ben-Moshe’s internet service provider.

And then there’s the possible home invasion.

The night after the Woolworths incident, Badiucao was asleep at his home in Melbourne when he was woken up by a noise. He climbed out of bed, turned on the lights, and looked outside to see if he could make out anything unusual. Then he went back to sleep.

The next morning he found that the metal rolling door on his garage was open, “about 30 centimetres above the ground.”

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t open it, because I have my artwork in there so I have to lock it every night,” he says. “So I don’t know who did it—but the time connection between that and being followed is very suspicious.”

Badiucao artwork

Nowadays Badiucao takes every precaution he can. He uses encrypted messaging apps, and a VPN, and only ever meets people in public spaces with lots of foot traffic. He can drive, but doesn’t, for fear that someone might see his number plate and trace it back to where he lives. And, if he can help it, he stays well clear of Chinatown.

“I know there’s a high presence of Chinese agents and eyes in Chinatown,” he explains. “So for me, I always feel a little bit cautious and guarded in that area.”

Some would call these measures extreme; paranoid even. That’s the price Badiucao has paid for publicly criticising the Chinese government: a “constant anxiety and worry about what might happen; how would it happen; when will it happen.” But if he’s anxious in his day-to-day life, he insists that he never lets it affect his autonomy as an artist.

“I set a bottom line: whatever I’m worrying about, it’s not going to influence my art. I am mighty within my art. Even though I have fears in my daily life, I do not censor myself or back away from any topic. That’s my red line, and I never cross it.”

It’s one of several dualities at the heart of Badiucao’s character. A reluctant hero who nonetheless relishes in his heroism; a circumspect 33-year-old who doesn’t drive and gets off one stop early, yet continues to kick the hornet’s nest. Badiucao lives every second as though hiding in plain sight. But his success—as an artist, as a revolutionary, as a “mighty” provocateur—is contingent on him being seen. And, despite the apparent dangers, he has given his life to the cause.

When I ask if he thinks he’ll ever be able to live—to walk the streets, ride a bus, or buy a coffee—without looking over his shoulder, he tells me quite frankly that it’s “impossible.”

“As long as I want to be an artist, I will never back away from the topic of human rights,” he says. “And one benefit of being recognised is that if something happened to me, I would probably have a lot of support from the international community. But fame will not necessarily bring me safety.

“Once you’re on the list, you’re on it for life. There is no way back.”

Words edited for brevity and clarity.
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