The messages arrived suddenly and then he went quiet. “My identity is leaked,” he said. “I am worried about my safety.”
The Chinese dissident artist Badiucao had been busy preparing an exhibition in Hong Kong to celebrate Free Expression Week, a series of events organized by rights groups. His show was partly inspired by Google’s plan to build a censored search engine in China, and was set to include work that the artist had created skewering the U.S. tech giant for cooperating with the Communist Party regime’s suppression of internet freedom.
But just days before the exhibition was set to launch last year, at a high-profile event featuring members of Russian punk-activist group Pussy Riot, it was canceled by organizers. Badiucao had received threats from the Chinese government and soon went into hiding.
It was a nightmare scenario for the artist, one of China’s most prolific political satirists, who has never revealed his real name. Somehow, police in China had discovered who he was — and they were trying to track him down.
“China is trying to stop any chance for people in Hong Kong to resist.”
“The Chinese government sent two policemen to visit my family in China. They took one of my family members to a police station and interrogated them for three or four hours,” Badiucao told The Intercept. “They were sending a message that they wanted my show to be canceled, and they said they would show no mercy to me anymore. It was intimidation, a terror tactic in order to force me to shut my mouth.”
Badiucao — who goes by the name “Buddy” — was born in Shanghai and studied law in China before moving to Australia, where he has lived in exile for the last 10 years. Wearing masks and cross-dressing during public appearances, he has gone to extreme lengths to conceal his identity, fearing reprisals from China’s government over his work, which regularly mocks and criticizes President Xi Jinping and his regime’s authoritarian policies.
Once he discovered that police in China had uncovered his identity, Badiucao disappeared from the internet. For six months, his highly active Twitter and Instagram pages fell silent. But after taking a break to assess his future and his security, the 33-year-old artist has decided that he is ready to return. His latest project, “China’s Artful Dissident,” is a documentary film aired in Australia on Tuesday, in which he reveals his face to the public for the first time.
“The only way to maintain my safety is to show myself to the world and tell the world what happened in Hong Kong,” Badiucao said in a phone interview from Melbourne. “For a lot of people, it was a big defeat of human rights and free speech that my exhibition got canceled. I want to make sure that people know this is not the end. I am not away. I am back. I will be back with you. And we will fight together.”
Hong Kong is a special administrative region in China and has a degree of independence from the mainland, with devolved judicial powers and more human rights protections. However, the regime in Beijing has been increasingly asserting control over Hong Kong, and in the last few years, there has been a steady crackdown on political events, media freedom, independent bookstores, and pro-democracy activism.
“The situation is getting worse and worse,” Badiucao said. “China is trying to stop any chance for people in Hong Kong to resist. It is a different city now. This is no longer the Hong Kong that we know.”
The coerced cancellation of Badiucao’s exhibition in Hong Kong was a stark example of Beijing’s tightening grip on the region. The event had been titled “Gongle,” a play on words about Google, based on a Chinese phrase that translates to “singing for Communism.”
Badiucao’s work for the show had included drawings celebrating the Umbrella Movement, a series of street protests against China’s interference in Hong Kong’s electoral system, staged between September and December 2014. The exhibition also featured portrayals of Xi as the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh, a reference to a meme, despised by the regime, mocking the Chinese leader’s plump appearance; images and mentions of Winnie the Pooh are now routinely blocked on Chinese social media sites.
Prior to the planned exhibition, Badiucao had created several pieces satirizing Google’s planned censored search engine for China. He drew pictures of the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai wearing a “Make Wall Great Again” baseball cap, referencing China’s internet censorship system, known as the Great Firewall. The artist also organized a protest at Google’s headquarters in California, where he distributed some of the red baseball caps to Google employees before being moved on by security.
Google has claimed that it is no longer developing the search engine, known as Dragonfly, but has refused to rule out launching it in future. Badiucao said he was angered by Google’s plan, describing it as “totally unacceptable” and symbolic of a greater battle between free speech and censorship in China. “Developing a new search engine that would help the Chinese government hunt down dissidents and tighten control over free speech — this is just disgraceful,” he said.
Images: Courtesy of Badiucao
In recent weeks, Badiucao has turned his attention to Twitter’s business dealings with China. The artist pitched a project to the social media company, offering to create a special emoji “hashflag” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Every time a person used the #Tiananmen30 hashtag, one of Badiucao’s emojis — such as an image of the man who famously blocked a tank during the protests — would appear beside it. Twitter wrote back to him claiming that it could only use “a limited number of emojis” on the platform and said it wasn’t interested in the collaboration.
On May 23, around the same time as its correspondence with Badiucao, Twitter hosted a “Twitter for Marketers” conference in Beijing. For Badiucao, this highlighted that while the company does not operate its platform in China because it is banned there, it still rakes in a huge amount of advertising revenue from the country — and therefore has a vested interest in staying on the Communist Party regime’s good side.
“I’m expecting a vendetta from the Chinese government. However, sometimes ideas require sacrifice and we need people standing up for them.”
“If they collaborate with me, it would agitate the Chinese businesses putting adverts on Twitter,” he said, pointing out that Twitter accepts advertising money from Chinese government propaganda outlets, such as Xinhua News, promoting their articles to millions of users across the world.
Badiucao is planning to launch a protest campaign over Twitter’s position on China — one of several new projects he is developing after the threats forced his break from public life. In refusing to keep quiet, he faces the risk that police will return to harass members of his family who remain on the Chinese mainland. That is a common tactic, he said. “They think maybe you are close to that person, so they can hurt that person in order to get you.”
Badiucao believes that he may never be able to return to China or its surrounding territories, unless the political situation in the country changes dramatically, which appears highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Even thousands of miles away in Australia, where he has obtained citizenship, he says he does not feel safe and fears that his computer, phones, and internet connection have been subjected to repeated hacking attempts. As a consequence, he regularly changes his electronic devices and phone numbers. He is still unsure of how the Chinese government discovered his identity, leading him to question whether someone he knows may have exposed him. “Maybe somebody accidentally leaked,” he said, “or someone I contacted was compromised by the Chinese government and is spying for them.”
However it happened, Badiucao has now come to terms with the fact that his anonymity is gone, and he is ready to confront the consequences. “If finding my family does not work, they will try to find me personally, even if I am in Australia,” he said, referencing accusations that China has in the past kidnapped dissidents living overseas. “I’m not naive about it. I’m expecting a vendetta from the Chinese government. However, sometimes ideas require sacrifice and we need people standing up for them. I feel that I have to do this. If I don’t speak up and defend my own freedom of speech, I can no longer be an artist.”