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HONG KONG — Last week, unnamed threats by the Chinese government led to the cancelation of what would have been the first solo exhibition of anonymous Chinese political cartoonist, Badiucao, in Hong Kong.
The exhibition, entitled Gongle, was set to run between November 3 and 10, but the day before it was due to open, organizers of the exhibition (including the Hong Kong Free Press, Amnesty International, and Reporters without Borders) released a joint statement saying that it had been canceled “out of safety concerns.”
“The decision follows threats made by the Chinese authorities relating to the artist. Whilst the organisers value freedom of expression, the safety of our partners remains a major concern,” they wrote. “We regret having to make this decision, and hope there will be a chance for [the] public to see Badiucao’s work in [the] future.” The exhibition was part of “Free Expression Week, a series of events in post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong.”
Tom Grundy, Editor-in-Chief of the Hong Kong Free Press, refused to address any further questions pertaining to the Gongle’s closure, fearing that any statement would impact Badiucao’s safety. Before the exhibition was canceled, Badiucao had already confirmed he would not attend, due to fears of kidnapping by the Chinese government and having his identity unmasked.
The idea for Gongle came amid Badiucao’s distress of Google’s plan to launch Dragonfly, a new search engine that would censor subjects that the Communist Party of China (CPC) wants hidden from its citizens — like the re-education camps housing over a million Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
The exhibition authors explain that Gongle is:
“ … a play on words about Google’s effort to re-enter China with a censored search engine. It sounds like ‘共’ in Chinese — the short term for the Communist Party — ‘共产党.’ Google’s Chinese name, ‘谷歌,’ is altered to ‘共歌.’ The character ‘歌’ means ‘singing’ or ‘song.’ Thus, ‘共歌’ literally means ‘communist songs’ or ‘singing for communism.’ It can also mean ‘singing together’ — a metaphor for free expression.”
One of the artworks intended for display depicted Google CEO Sundar Pichai wearing a “Make America Great Again”-esque red cap, replaced with the logo “Make Wall Great Again” — a reference to the CPC’s internet firewall, which censors outside information including the Google search engine.
Known by his pseudonym Badiucao, the artist has lived in self-exile in Australia for the past 7 years, where he is now a citizen. He made a name for himself through his robust body of work dedicated to viscerally exposing what he views as a highly controlled and repressive Chinese authoritarian government.
A target he most fondly aims at is none other than Chinese president Xi Jinping, with depictions of the paramount leader going as far as encasing Xi’s head in an erect condom. He has also launched several artistic campaigns; notably celebrating late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and advocating for the plight of Liu Xiaobo’s widow Liu Xia, who was kept under house arrest by the Chinese government until this April.
Joshua Wong, activist and co-founder of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy party Demosistō, described the exhibition closure as demonstrative of the lengths China will go to extend the reach of its censorship; given that Badiucao, who resides in Australia, can still face this type of censorship.
“This has led up to the realization that Chinese censorship is far more than our imagination,” Wong said in a phone interview with Hyperallergic.
While many were upset by the cancelation, activists and organizers were not surprised in light of recent events, notably the Hong Kong government’s decision to not renew the work visa of Victor Mallet, former Asia Editor for the Financial Times. Many journalists have credited the move as a direct consequence of Mallet’s decision to have hosted Andy Chan, the head of a political party that has called for independence from China, at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in August.
“I am not surprised but I am disappointed that the ‘umbrella protests’ we witnessed in Hong Kong, against the authoritarianism and influence of the mainland government, have been met by an increase in control from the top,” said Bidisha, a British journalist and artist who has reported extensively on the intersection between arts and human rights, in an email to Hyperallergic.
A crackdown on artists’ freedom of speech and expression is one of the major signs of authoritarianism, after restrictions on freedom of the press and people’s right to organize and assembly, Bidisha notes.
Highlighting the importance of cartoons as part of political resistance, Cédric Alviani, Director of the East Asia Bureau of Reporters Without Borders, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview that, “The power of a cartoon is its ability to create laughter. An authoritarian government cannot stand being laughed at, because then it makes them appear weak.”
Indeed, the forced closure of Badiucao’s exhibition is just the latest in a series of increasingly strong antics the Chinese government has used against Chinese political cartoonists, even those overseas.
In 2014, Chinese political cartoonist, Wang Liming, also known by his pen name Rebel Pepper, was forced to flee China for Japan amid fear for his personal safety. He first ran into trouble on his trip to Japan when he published cartoons showing Japan and other countries in a favorable light. Soon, his artwork was denounced by the Chinese newspaper, People’s Daily, which is considered a mouthpiece for the CPC.
Within hours, Rebel Pepper’s microblog accounts, wiki-based Baidu encyclopedia page, and his e-commerce store had all been deleted. Shortly afterward, he began receiving emailed threats saying that he would be killed if he ever returned to China. He remained in Japan until he immigrated to the US in 2018.
Just this past summer, Jiang Yefei, a Chinese political cartoonist, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison by the Supreme People’s Court of China this June after being repatriated from Thailand, where he had fled to in 2008 — two weeks before he and his family were set to immigrate to Canada. He originally fled China after being tortured for criticizing the CPC on their handling of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.
Almost exactly a week after the Badiucao exhibition was canceled, a talk by exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian at the Hong Kong Literary Festival was canceled by the organizers, amid fears of an increasingly assertive China. Reinstated at the last minute, the talk’s reversal “proves the failure” of self-censorship, Jian said.
In his final interview before the Gongle exhibition was canceled, Badiucao told the Hong Kong Free Press, “I think the best way to defend human rights is to practice it. If you don’t do that, it’s like trying [to] swim against the opposite current. You have to protect your freedom … and it’s important not to give up.”