“In China, history is constantly being unified and tampered with, and even forgotten. On the other hand, individual tragedy is engulfed by the grander narrative. As a rebel, I want to use my pen to record history from my perspective, and use my individual perspective to confront the official record.” — Badiucao, from an interview with Sophie Beach
[CRNI conducted this interview with Badiucao online in July, 2016. All artwork by Badiucao and used with the artist’s permission; exerpts from Watching Big Brother used with permission of the artist and the publisher, China Digital Times.]
You’ve mentioned to Carol Hills that you chose “Badiucao” as your cartooning name because there are no hints in it that could identify you to the Chinese authorities. So, China doesn’t know who Badiucao is?
No I don’t think so. I am trying my best to hide and secure my ID. But on the other hand, I also hope Badiucao could be anyone who wants to express their ideas freely. Hence for this reason, a random name might just be the best name.
Do you believe you’d be in danger — physical or otherwise — if the Chinese government knew your identity?
Yes. The crackdown on human-rights activists and artists is getting worse and worse. Examples — Ai Weiwei’s kidnapping, Wang Liming’s [cartoonist Rebel Pepper] exile to Japan, the massive crackdown on human rights lawyers.
Do you believe there’d be repercussions for your family and friends in China if Chinese authorities knew who you are?
Yes, repercussions for family and friends is the most common way for the Chinese Government to throw terror on people like me. They stop your family from going overseas, even children of dissidents — for example, human rights lawyer Wang Yu’s son. They frame family members and send them to prison in order to bend the will of dissident or purely as a punishment: Three-Year Prison Term for Nephew of Chinese Dissident Chen Guangcheng.
Is the abduction of cartoonist Jiang Yefei and rights-activist Dong Guanping from Thailand by Chinese government agents another sign China is ramping up its efforts against critics and human rights campaigners?
Yes, this is very nasty and such a shame on Thailand. It is not just about the countries around China shadowed by the CCP. Even dissidents in Australia have started to feel the threat from China. The most recent example will be the University of Sydney tutor Wuwei’s case.
Were you posting cartoons as Badiucao while still in China?
Nope, I only started to draw cartoons when I arrived in Australia. I started my cartoon posting on Weibo [China’s iteration of Twitter] first, before I moved my platform to Twitter
Back in 2011, David Bandurski from the China Media Project told the New York Times “the Internet has dramatically changed the environment for Chinese political cartoonists, who now have a good platform to find an audience.” In your interview with Sophie Beach for your book, Watching Big Brother, you said those days were over.
Oh, yes. There was a time that so many cartoonists would draw around every social issue at the time. But now it is over. It is so over. Last month, another cartoonist (http://www.weibo.com/doggykiller?is_hot=1) on Weibo got arrested for his drawing which can be associated to Tiananmen Massacre, and fortunately he got released recently. I checked his work, and most of the work is not in the range of political cartoon. But even artists like him are not allowed to step on the red line.
Cartoonist Kuang Biao used to tally up his Weibo reincarnations every time he reappeared with a new account. Has Weibo now battened down the hatches against China’s political cartoonists?
According to my observation, Weibo is kind of replaced by WeChat. And Weibo’s censorship and manipulation is very sophisticated now.
Mr. Kuang is more about WeChat now I think. But the thing is WeChat is more like an inter-community social media. You are restricted to a much smaller audience. There are some accounts called public accounts which act like a media platform, however real ID is needed before you can create a public account. Hence, it just casts the shadow of censorship from the very beginning.
Are you still able to post on Weibo?
How is your work accessed now in China?
Mainly from Twitter and the China Digital Times. And I do have many Twitter followers, who love to share my work on Chinese social media themselves. I appreciate my followers on Twitter very much for this! It’s one of very important reasons which keep me going.
Do followers in China have a way to get hold of your cartoon collection, Watching Big Brother?
If they can get access to Twitter, they pretty much have access to my book.
In 2014, you illustrated “阴道昏迷” and “马三家咆哮.” What would their titles be in English?
阴道昏迷—Vaginal Coma. 马三家咆哮— Roar of Masanjia. Both of the books are about the horrible experience of the survivors from Masanjia forced labor camp.
Vaginal Coma is about the female cells, and Roar of Masanjia is about the male cells. To illustrate those books was the most difficult and painful art experience I have ever had. The books are a record of those poor prisoners who got tortured all the time in the camp. My job was to recreate their horrifying experience in order to reveal these crimes to the world directly. I imagined their feeling and illustrated according to their written notes, which almost broke me. But I was so pleased and moved when the books were published. I think those books are great comfort for those prisoners who went through all the tragedy. Doc film about Masanjia force labor camp. Media coverage for Masanjia force labor camp.
Was your move to Australia primarily to insure your freedom and the ability to critique China through cartoons?
The biggest motivation for me to leave China was to seek freedom and be free from the political persecution. My grandpa was in the art industry in China. And both of my grandparents got killed in the political catastrophe in 1957 for creating “wrong art,” leaving my father an orphan when he was just a toddler. Hence, I knew if I wanted to make art freely without the fear of the government, I had to leave.
Is Australia a good place to be a exiled cartoonist?
Anywhere that respects human rights and free speech is a good place for an artist like me. However with the Chinese government is extending its power overseas and Australia is facing great challenge. [University of Sydney former tutor] Wuwei’s case is the best example!
Who were/are your artistic influences?
Geman expressionism has the most significant influence on my cartoon creation. Artists like Kathe Kollwitz/Otto Dix have a great insight of human struggling and the horrible conditions in a dark age. I feel the same depression and the potential explosion of emotion within the society in China and the world. Ai Weiwei is another crucial influence on me with my contemporary art practice, as well as role model for me.
And it’s not just about the tension in China. It’s also about the global refugee crisis and people in countries like North Korea, the rise of Trump-like politicians, the rise of nationalism as evidenced by Brexit.
In April you declared that free speech on Twitter was dead after a former Chinese military engineer with “previous ties to the country’s security services,” Kathy Chen, was named Twitter’s managing director for China.
Twitter is doing its best job to promote Chinese official media such as CCTV or Xinhua News. And those media are completely propaganda machines. By promoting those channels, the space for expression for Chinese will diminish.
Twitter has failed to solve the problem of cyber-bullying from the 五毛, individual fake accounts owned and manipulated by China’s propaganda department.
Recently Twitter declared that there are 10 million users in China. But i think the real users from China is definitely less than 1 million. But, you know, if you including those government-owned zombie accounts, Twitter might have its ’10 million’ users after all.
What was the worst part of being targeted for cyberattack critical of China’s human rights record?
I don’t really mind they make all those radical stories of me. Usually I pretty much enjoyed it and had a good laugh . . . But what did get me was the terror they cast on me. There was a period I started to self-censor my work and did not want to put myself at risk like this. Fortunately, I managed to overcome the fear. I have to express with my pen freely. Otherwise I lose the meaning of my own life.
Here are some other activists facing the same attacks: Wenyunchao, Murong Xuecun.
Do you see social media outside of China falling into line with Xi Jinping’s goal of “purifying the Internet”?
There is a Chinese saying: “Money can even make a ghost turn a grindstone for you.” That is pretty much the case here. A lot of social media companies want to have a share of juicy Chinese market. But the only way to enter China is to cooperate with the censorship system and even become a part of the brainwash and propaganda machine itself. However, with the weakened economy in China, I hope it will change!