Political cartoonist Badiucao has appeared in public wearing a multicoloured ski mask with the mouth sewn shut and disguised himself as a woman in a wig and large sunglasses in a bid to shield his identity from the authorities in his native China.

But despite his efforts to remain anonymous, the Australian-based creator of cartoons poking fun at the Beijing government has recently felt forced to reveal his face in order to stand up to growing pressure from those in power.

Badiucao, a name made up of three Chinese characters picked at random so as to be gibberish, says his art is a form of resistance. The work he publishes online pushes back against Beijing’s official narrative and is designed to be highly shareable in order to evade government censors. “What could be more efficient to defeat censorship than making it viral?” he says.

The realisation that the Chinese government has discovered his identity dawns on him in the Australian documentary China’s Artful Dissident, which tracks the artist as he prepares for a show in Hong Kong. The film, which aired recently on Australian TV on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, shows Badiucao weighing his wish to protect his family still living in China against his desire to display his work on Chinese soil. The exhibition was eventually called off over safety concerns.

Political cartoonist and artist Badiucao
Political cartoonist and artist Badiucao

Now living in Melbourne, the dissident artist is a member of the generation born in the 1980s that has mostly benefited from China’s rapid economic growth. He studied law at university and saw human rights law as a possible career path, but later grew disillusioned with life in China and emigrated. He is self-taught as an artist, having been discouraged from pursuing a life in the arts as a child as it was considered too dangerous in light of his family’s tragic history. 

His grandfather and great uncle were both pioneers in China’s film industry, but became victims of China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign. This movement, which began in 1956, saw intellectuals invited by the Communist party to criticise its policies. However, as the criticism escalated, many were sent to the countryside for hard labour or were imprisoned. Badiucao’s grandfather died in unknown circumstances at such a labour camp. “He just evaporated,” the artist says.

Street art by Badiucao in Melbourne, with flowers in memory of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo
Street art by Badiucao in Melbourne, with flowers in memory of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo

Badiucao first shared his cartoons on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, with an image commenting on the 2011 Wenzhou rail crash, which killed 40 people. As authorities scrabbled to suppress reporting on the accident in newspapers, discussion took off online, where censors had yet to impose control fully.

“I don’t think they’d quite figured out what social media was about,” Badiucao says. “The technology and their awareness had not caught up, which leaves a kind of space on the internet.”

Badiucao was surprised by the lively discussion on Weibo. “Most of the time, Chinese are quite quiet, they don’t talk about politics. They might talk about it at the dinner table, but they don’t talk about it in public like the netizens did online,” he explains.

That online freedom did not last long. Censors closed his account down 37 times, and despite forming a union with other cartoonists to promote one another’s works, he gave up on the microblogging site and decamped to Twitter. “It’s almost like being a cyber world refugee,” he jokes.

Cartoon featuring the banned Winnie the Pooh
Cartoon featuring the banned Winnie the Pooh

Charlie Smith of Greatfire.org, a censorship watchdog, says the train crash marked a switch from ad hoc censorship to professionalised technology-driven controls that have become increasingly sophisticated under President Xi Jinping. “Year after year, more websites, search terms, photos and subjects have been added to the censorship blacklists, and rarely do they ever come off those lists,” Smith says. 

The adoption of artificial intelligence by censors has had a wider impact on free speech, says Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch. “It has definitely further chilled speech online. From what I’ve observed, there have been even fewer posts on politically sensitive issues, either because netizens can’t get them posted or are afraid to post them in the first place.”

The artist has produced cartoons depicting Xi ageing into a skull in a suit after he removed leadership term limits, and as Winnie the Pooh, following a meme that took off when a photo of Xi with President Barack Obama sparked comparisons to Pooh and led to a ban on the bear on the Chinese internet.

Badiucao says the ideas expressed in his art are seen as a threat by the Chinese government. “As a political artist, I have a power that is out of their control, and they know how dangerous it could be to them. That is why they are hunting down artists like me.”

His concerns are not unfounded. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was abducted and detained for three months by Chinese security agents in 2011 without charge, following a series of works that focused on politically sensitive topics, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai’s studio, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, was fined Rmb15m for tax evasion, which the artist denied, claiming it was levied as retribution for his political activities

Badiucao’s work now also exists in the physical world. One work is a cartoon he created from a photograph of the writer Liu Xiaobo, China’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and his wife Liu Xia, a day before Liu died from cancer in detention, and pasted on Melbourne’s Hosier Lane. The original picture of the couple was being deleted by Chinese censors online, so he took his replica to the street art lane as a personal tribute. When he returned after Liu’s death, Badiucao found flowers, candles and cards placed below the image. 

“This is seeing the power of people, seeing the image work,” he says. “If you can find a powerful enough image, it will echo in people’s hearts.”

A still from the documentary about Badiucao, Artful Dissident'
A still from the documentary about Badiucao, Artful Dissident'

Badiucao’s cancelled Hong Kong show included pieces commissioned from Chinese factories through Taobao, the Alibaba-owned online marketplace. One work, a “tiger chair” fitted with restraints used to immobilise detainees during interrogation, with a special rocking chair base, was designed to highlight China’s role as an exporter of torture equipment. 

Finding factories to create these pieces was a political statement, Badiucao explains. “For me, it’s full of adventure because I never know if the factories will notice this is political work and won’t want to make it. But maybe because they just want to make money, or maybe the censorship system is so successful that they don’t even recognise that it is bad stuff, that it is sensitive stuff. And because of that absurdity, they made it and they mailed it to Hong Kong.”

The city was back in the artist’s thoughts as he reappeared from a self-imposed period of reflection to coincide with massive protests in Hong Kong last month. His latest work ridicules the territory’s leader, Carrie Lam, after she cried what people say were crocodile tears in a television interview. Badiucao’s cartoon shows Lam in her signature cheongsam dress as a reptilian hand dabs away the tears.

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