Badiucao (巴 丢 草) is an appreciated Chinese political artist and rights activist.
The name Badiucao was adopted to protect his real identity. Badiucao uses satire and pop culture references as tools for his criticism of the regime, overturning the stereotypes of Chinese propaganda against the status quo.
Criticism of the regime and the crackdown of Chinese society find a very important place in his art. Over the last few years, his artistic production has attracted the attention of international media.
On November 2018 news website Hong Kong Free Press announced that the art exhibition ‘Gongle’ was canceled out of safety concerns because Badiucao’s real identity was compromised by Chinese authorities and his family was threatened.
The following text combines two interviews (July 2019 ; Aug, 2018)
Interview by Matteo Damiani
What happened in Hong Kong last year before your exhibition? Why it was canceled?
Well, it’s very simple. I found out my identity was compromised, the police found my family there, they get my relatives to the police station, they send via family member messages to me, they wanted the show to be canceled, otherwise they had to do things to me and to my family, they also said that “if you choose to continue the show, we will send policemen to the opening in Hong Kong”.
Of course, I shared all the information with the local organizers and the people who were helping. So, unfortunately, we decided that there was just too much of a risk to do. And it was dangerous for me and for anyone who was helping in Hong Kong as well. So we just decided to cancel the show.
In documentary China’s Artful Dissident you took off your mask and revealed your real identity. What do you think will be the consequences of this act?
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The consequence has happened because since this documentary have been released I have experienced cyber-attacks, following harassment in Australia.
One time I got followed by four people, Asian males, with similar dressing and with Bluetooth earphones plugged in, but I got off the bus to a supermarket. And in another occasion, the same thing, on the public traffic system, suddenly two guys have been seen to follow me on my way to a private screening of the documentary. It’s happened not to just me, also the film director has experienced similar encounters with strange Asian looking people. So this is a consequence that I’m facing.
I don’t know how far the Chinese government will go. Definitely, according to other examples, there are all the possibilities laid out there, it could be life-threatening, it could be just intimidation to make me stop, and by showing my face, basically, it just makes easy to know how I look like.
However, you know, they know my real identity, I have to accept this fact and I have to arrange my life and art with this new reality. I believe that the more that I expose myself, the more I engage in public life, the more interviews I do like now will put me under the lights. And only being that I probably will be safer than I’m just in the dark. So yeah that’s the afterlife, after showing my face.
Do you think China is happy with Carrie Lam’s handling of the situation in Hong Kong?
It’s very hard to tell because I guess the logic of this question is based on how much Carrie Lam is really behaving by herself. If she is totally a puppet of Beijing then it’s predictable that every move she did is actually approved by Beijing.
So it’s not really her fault but it was a miscalculation from the Chinese government, but I really don’t know how independent Carrie Lam is from Beijing. I’m more suspicious that’s actually Beijing is closely monitoring and also directing.
So how angry can you be with your puppet that you manipulate by yourself? The only one you can get angry with is yourself. But, there is possibility Carrie Lam might be the scapegoat. They may say she failed Hong Kong people, and it’s her problem, not Beijing’s problem. Maybe they’ll sacrifice her at some stage but who knows.
Will China retaliate?
I think again it’s very hard to predict but I guess it’s the same thing. The strategy that the Hong Kong government or the Beijing government is to wait it out.
So their strategy is to wait is till the city and all the protesters will lose their patience. When our movement ends then the government strike. They even are more patient because just recently, I think it was the beginning of this year, those leaders of the Umbrella Movement got persecuted and sentenced to prison.
In China there is a saying that goes ‘qiū hòu suàn zhàng’ (秋后算账, literally settling accounts after the autumn harvest; to bide time for revenge). It means they only avenge you after the autumn.
They will carefully and patiently wait months and months until everything is quiet down to do the cracking down or revenge.
I assume they wouldn’t really have the balls to repeat another massacre at this stage, however they are always seeking possibilities or opportunities for revenge.
I mean they would persecute those brave young protestors, they will find a way to intimidate them in the future for sure.
What is your next project?
I am working on my next exhibition, I’m still looking for a proper venue to do that, because the Hong Kong incident of last year created a very big problem for my art career, because usually if you want to apply for another show, it means you have to plan half year or one year in advance.
So I was kind of relying on the show, however, because of that doesn’t happen, so it didn’t leave me really enough time to arrange another show with the regular schedule. So a lot of new projects will be around Hong Kong scene and also around my own identity since now I can rebuild my face.
I can share my life. I also want to use my art to address those issues and those are my next projects. The one that I’ve already started is actually a campaign against Twitter company, urging them to act on my proposal to create an emoji on Twitter about Tiananmen Massacre, with the image of Tankman.
This year is 30 years anniversary, about two months ago I contacted Twitter company and I proposed that they should create a special hashtag, an emoji for this important anniversary. After a very long waiting, Twitter contacted me saying they refused the proposal because they don’t have enough time to do that because of the limited resources of Twitter, they couldn’t make it in time. I’m not really buying the answer. I think the real concern of Twitter is losing advertisements and profits from the Chinese market.
So what I’m starting now is an art campaign to encourage people to take a selfie with my design of the emoji for the 31st anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre or to draw their own version of the tankman to ask Twitter to create a special emoji for the next year’s anniversary. So far I have received a lot of support from my fellow cartoonists and artists on Twitter. I have seen a lot of people drawing their own version of the tankman and then sending it to a Twitter company. And this is still going on. So now we are giving them a whole year to achieve this thing.
### Aug. 2018 ###
When and Why did you start to make political cartoons?
I think I started in 2011 with a bullet train incident in China (the Wenzhou train collision). So it was like triggered by the crash of two bullet trains. By the time I was just starting to use Twitter, and the Chinese version of it, which is called Weibo.
That incident sparked huge discussion on the internet besides China, about why this happened.
The Chinese government tends to cover the story by telling a lie or they’re making stories instead of reporting the fact. But people online were trying to confront the official narratives so by the time I was really moved by this and the atmosphere in China with people starting to express their own ideas on this new intact platform.
I was thinking I should just use it at my advantage. It’s a way to express myself and after that, it all just began.
Are your works available in China?
Well, yes and no. The reason why I say yes is I do know some people get access to my work from my social media like Twitter, or from the media where I post my work like Hong Kong Free Press or China Digital Times. People will download my work and they will post it in China. Most of the websites I’m using now are forbidden in China.
The people are using VPNs or other methods to get access to the information, or to go around the Great Firewall which is the Chinese censorship filter. So yes, technically nobody in China is allowed to actually get access to my work.
I mean even my website is blocked, my personal artist website is blocked, but in the real world, people will find a way around to see my work. Recently I’m really just trying to expand my practice beyond the internet worlds, so I started doing like internet campaigning for performance or for street art and I have a lot of positive feedback from those campaigns.
There are even people inside of China joining the campaign as well by printing out my work and placing it on the street, by doing the performance in public and taking photos and videos and then uploading on social media. There are people in South China that have access to my work.
What do ordinary Chinese people think when they read your comics?
I think they feel is funny, because they know what I’m talking about. We have effective communication, it’s not like if I’m joining something and they don’t understand.
It’s very easy for them to understand because all the work is carefully observing the internet inside of China and try to use the internet culture to present it, so even the people inside of China would understand what I’m trying to express.
I think sometimes it can be confronting them as well because you know inside of China almost no one can have the freedom and safety to express the same way as I do.
So maybe they will be shocked. It’s the first time they see something like that, they wouldn’t think “it is okay to mock the leader in China like Xi Jinping or people like that”.
I think it is necessary even if they are shocked or feel they want to keep distance with my work but by continuing sending the work back in China it’s also a way to encourage people to express themselves and accepting criticizing. How do they share your comics in China?
I think most of them are using VPNs, so they can get access to Twitter or to those media platforms. Then they will download my work and then they re-post them on the platforms inside of China like WeChat or Weibo or even just sharing with friends, one by one, so that’s kind of indirect but it works sometimes.
I also always have feedback from other Twitter users. They will say “ok my post on Wechat of your cartoon has already being deleted” or “you know, I put your work upside down then I can post it again”.
So I had a lot of scenarios like that, people telling me how was the reaction to the work inside of China, how’s the government react to them, whether they deleted or they try to censor. Some people lose their accounts because they’re posting works of mine. So the accounts can be suspended or deleted after posting like that.
What do you think about the direction taken by the CPC in the last years?
I think it’s really getting worst and worst, and like I said, in 2011 there was almost an illusion of a great change was happening because everything was new.
The Internet was new to China, social media platforms were new to China, so I guess the government by the time did not have the capacity to do a very efficient controlling and censoring but now they understand how important this is, they have the determination to just control this platform but also they have the technology, like AI or other methods, or they organize enough people to put into the censorship work, so after Xi Jinping presidency the whole China is getting darker.
If I try to visualize it the platforms are diminishing the civil society.
The movement of learning to be citizens is really just removed from China and you see they are cracking down here our lawyers on NGOs and activists so it’s pretty like a desperate moment and just today I saw another horrible news that Google’s planning to go back to the Chinese market and they’re helping to develop this new censored search engine.
It’s a total disaster, so I guess not just within China, but also the international Internet environment is not good either.
What’s your background?
No, I’m afraid I can’t answer this question.
Is the CPC aware of your real identity?
I mean, the reason why I keep being anonymous and using a pen-name is that I recognize the danger behind it. I don’t know if the government is aware of my identity.
I just have to be cautious and try my best to protect myself.
Have you ever go back to China?
No. I wouldn’t take the risk.
Do you miss China?
Yeah, of course. I mean who would like to be exiled from your home, from your family and friends? It’s not an easy choice.
Although, it feels great when you can travel around the world and see different people and cultures, but at the end of the day everybody will be homesick. And yeah that would be kind of an odd feeling.
What inspires you?
I feel there are a lot of artists from the history to the contemporary art scene that are actually focusing on what we know now as human rights or the human condition.
I’m interested in artists reflecting on human struggling and tragedies. In the modern world, we have Picasso depicting Guernica, the trauma of the war or a bit earlier, artists like Francisco Goya, the Spanish painter who did a lot of paintings dealing with the brutality.
I guess they’d actually had a huge impact on me. Also a German female artist, Käthe Kollwitz had a huge impact on my cartoon style.
I like the wooden printings because the Chinese propaganda system is actually inspired by her work by the time when before the Congress party was in power or the left-wing artists actually adapted to the style and use that style as their propaganda.
Personally, I think it’s a very powerful form of art that’s why Congress party adapted it and use it for the propaganda machine. A part of my art is using the same style but doing the opposite thing by attacking the propaganda system, by giving an individual perspective narrative against this official national owned story.
Also, there are contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei, they are a great inspiration to me as well, like all his practice, the online campaigns he launched, the investment about the children victims from the earthquake.
What contemporary Chinese artists do you like the most?
I think Ai Weiwei for sure.
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.