Chinese cartoonist Badiucao unmasks after Beijing threats

Hong Kong (AFP) –


A Chinese cartoonist whose anonymous political satire earned him comparisons with Banksy -- and the wrath of Beijing -- has outed himself as a former law school student who became politicised after watching a Tiananmen Square documentary in a dorm room.

Badiucao, whose subversive pieces regularly mock President Xi Jinping, has revealed his face and his personal story for the first time in the hope it will help protect him from the Chinese authorities.

He says he and his family have been under threat ever since he was forced to cancel a highly anticipated show in Hong Kong last year, with Chinese police allegedly telling relatives "there would be no mercy" if he didn't pull out.

"I don't think the Chinese Communist Party will ever forget or forgive its enemies, which in this case is me," he told AFP from Melbourne, where he currently lives.

"The only way to defeat that kind of terror is to expose everything openly... so everyone around in the world can see what's going in China," he said.

Badiucao, 33, grew up in Shanghai and was considering a career as a lawyer until one night he and three friends began watching a downloaded Taiwanese drama.

Unbeknown to them, the file had "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" -- a detailed documentary about the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen square protesters -- spliced in.

The group was transfixed.

None of the young men -- all students at East China University of Political Science and Law -- had ever heard of the uprising or its bloody ending, thanks to party censors and the "Great Firewall".

"It was three hours, everybody just sat there and the room was completely dark, nobody even got up to turn on a light," recalled Badiucao.

"Not a single teacher talked about that issue in law school," added the artist, who is keeping his real name under wraps.

- Freedom in Australia -

Haunted by this new knowledge and the memory of his grandfather who died in a concentration camp during the anti-intellectual movement of the late 1950s, he left for Australia to begin a career satirising political suppression.

When AFP visited his makeshift studio in Melbourne it was clear the space -- a shipping container -- was designed to be moved at short notice.

The artwork inside featured Badiucao's typically political works: a portrait of fellow dissident artist Ai Weiwei and a three-panel painting based on the photograph of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee who drowned trying to make it to Europe.

After a sidestep into teaching at a kindergarten, Badiucao's first solo international exhibition and his first in a Chinese territory was scheduled for November last year in Hong Kong.

Billed as a "black comedy for Hong Kong, China and the world", he had secretly used the Taobao e-commerce platform to commission factories on the mainland to produce his works.

Among them was a portrait of Xi and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, their faces merged to highlight growing fears that freedoms in the city are deteriorating in the face of an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Another was of late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and his widow Liu Xia -- both faceless but whose outlines glow in neon light.

That work followed a performance organised by Badiucao a few months previously, at the Louvre Museum in Paris, in which volunteers held up large cloth prints of the Mona Lisa sporting Liu Xia's glasses and shaved haircut in front of the original painting itself.

- Family threatened -

But three days before the Hong Kong opening, Badiucao said he was contacted by his family to say relatives in China had been taken by police for questioning.

It is a tactic that has been routinely deployed by Chinese authorities to silence Uighur dissidents living overseas.

"My family in China had no idea what I'm doing," he explained. "They got told I'm having this exhibition in Hong Kong and the message from the police is pretty clear: they want me to shut down everything."

He added that police also threatened to send two officers from the mainland to the opening -- which would have been in breach of Hong Kong's rules. Badiucao felt he had no option but to comply.

Chinese authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

The artist said Beijing had initially been ignorant of who he really was.

But they were able to piece together his identity after a fellow dissident revealed on Twitter he was working as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's assistant in Berlin.

Now there is little reason to hide who he really is, he told AFP, and has abandoned the full face masks he wore at public appearances.

The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4 seemed like a good moment to make the revelation "as a way to remember their courage", he said.

"Those young bodies can be crushed by a tank but their spirit lives and they give me the power to step out."