VANCOUVER—The rogue cartoonist known only as Badiucao didn’t learn about the Tiananmen Massacre in school, from family or even on the internet. It was a pirated romance movie that set him on a path to celebrity and self-exile.
As a law student in Shanghai, Badiucao had never heard of the bloody crackdown. One evening in 2006, when he and his classmates were sitting around a computer to watch a flick from Taiwan, they found that a documentary had been recorded over part of it.
“Out of the blue, the movie turned into something different. None of us thought it was real,” Badiucao told Star Vancouver. “We were shocked.”
For three hours, they watched in horror and fascination. First, there were images of euphoric student protesters camped out in Beijing’s sprawling Tiananmen Square, dancing to rock music and waving banners calling for government accountability.
Then, on the night of June 3 and into the early hours of June 4, 1989, Chinese troops opened fire.
Government censors have since worked furiously to scrub any mention of the bloody event from history books, websites and social-media posts. Many Chinese have no knowledge of what happened, and people who commemorated anniversaries in mainland China have been arrested.
Badiucao and his classmates related to the jubilant and patriotic protesters. They couldn’t believe their government had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of peaceful demonstrators. The government has never confirmed an exact death toll.
That’s when Badiucao, who came from a family of artists and intellectuals, realized he had to leave his country.
“What happened in 1989 made me feel there was no hope to pursue being an artist or to live in a free world in China. And I saw the potential of the young people in Tiananmen and … I needed to discover my own courage,” he said in a rare series of interviews Star Vancouver conducted in-person in Melbourne and over the phone.
He dropped out of law school and went to Australia to study at the Adelaide Central School of Art. He has been working as a political cartoonist for the past 10 years, but with his parents’ pleas to stay safe in mind, he has kept his identity secret, donning ski masks at all public appearances.
Today, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre, Badiucao will take off his mask for good. When he learned that Chinese authorities knew his identity and were visiting his family members, he felt he could either go into hiding or stand up and fight back.
“They know me now,” the 33-year-old said in a new documentary being released today, before allowing a camera to pan up and show his face.
For the past decade, working mostly in Australia with a stint in the Berlin studio of famous Chinese artist-in-exile Ai Weiwei, Badiucao’s friends had no idea he’s behind the popular political cartoons that skewer the Chinese Communist Party.
His cartoons often co-opt the style of CCP propaganda posters to make bold statements about abuse of power and censorship. He continued to satirize Chinese President Xi Jinping with images of Winnie the Pooh after images of the character were banned on Chinese social media. Some of his work is starkly minimalist, such as a tender illustration of the late pro-democracy writer Liu Xiaobo, who was the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody since Nazi Germany.
During occasional public appearances and while putting up street art in alleyways, he always wore masks, even after he obtained Australia citizenship.
Despite his reservations about public attention, Badiucao allowed Australian filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe into his life in mid-2017. “The Artful Dissident,” produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and airing June 4, follows Badiucao as he prepared to make his first solo exhibition on Chinese soil in Hong Kong.
In the film, he explains how he was inspired by “Tank Man,” the nickname for the never-identified Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, waving his arms and brandishing plastic shopping bags to urge the tanks to stop rolling forward.
For the Nov. 3, 2018 opening ceremony of the Hong Kong exhibition, Russian protest band Pussy Riot and Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong were scheduled as headliners. Badiucao’s solo debut was part of a series of events examining free expression, jointly hosted by media outlet Hong Kong Free Press, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.
But days before the event, Badiucao received word that police had visited his relatives living in China and asked them to pass on a message: “Cancel the exhibition, otherwise we will not treat you or your family with courtesy.”
China’s Foreign Ministry did not return multiple calls from Star Vancouver requesting verification of the police action.
Pressuring family members is a known Chinese police tactic to control critical voices, including people who live overseas. In 2016, New York-based activist Wen Yunchao said Chinese authorities detained three members of his family after he wrote an open letter calling for the resignation of President Xi.
Badiucao felt he had no choice but to take the warning seriously and call off the exhibition. For the past six months, he hasn’t produced much art and has been quiet on social media.
But instead of continuing to lie low, Badiucao cut ties with his family members in hopes that the distance would protect them and gave director Ben-Moshe permission to reveal his face in the last scene of the documentary.
“It wasn’t an easy choice to make, morally. Hopefully, by choosing to show my face, I can establish more real connections with the real world and convince people to change their understanding of China,” he said.
Badiucao will continue to go by his pen name (which in Chinese is a string of nonsensical words) because he feels his real name belongs to his family and is not his to expose to the world.
He hopes his story will let people know there are no borders when it comes to Beijing’s efforts to stifle dissent, which explains why many immigrants are afraid to speak out.
He added that he thinks that Canada is ahead of Australia in welcoming recent immigrants.
“When minorities don’t feel a sense of belonging, that’s when they are more immune to manipulation and pressure from China. The bottom line is that you need to engage and seek out new voices from China,” Badiucao said.
In the coming months, he looks forward to travelling internationally to screen the film and exploring different artistic formats. There are no Canadian screening dates finalized so far.
Sophie Beach, the executive editor of the Berkeley-based China Digital Times where Badiucao worked as a contributing cartoonist, said his work stands out.
“So many political cartoons and humour in general can be impossible to translate and retain the same flavour as the original, but his images often speak for themselves. They are sharp, direct and make a strong statement just at a glance, often with a cheeky sense of humour,” Beach told Star Vancouver.
“He speaks his truth to power in a very direct way.”
Canadians have organized vigils and talks across the country today to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre and protest continued rights abuses.
Local commemorations may have additional resonance this year, as two Canadians — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — are still imprisoned in China without access to a lawyer. Former Canadian diplomats have called their detention a form of retaliation for the arrest of Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
And Uyghur-Canadians are increasingly speaking out to draw attention to their family members’ plights. Upward of a million Muslim minority Uyghurs are currently detained in internment camps in China’s far-west Xinjiang region — called “re-education centres” by Beijing — according to the UN and human-rights watchdogs.
On Sunday, in an unusual acknowledgement, China’s defence minister defended the Tiananmen Square crackdown, telling a security forum in Singapore that stopping the “turbulence” 30 years ago was the “correct” policy.