For the past six months, Chinese dissident cartoonist Badiucao has kept unusually quiet. The artist-provocateur, armed with a keyboard and digital pen, is rarely one to mince his words, often relayed to his sizeable Twitter following. Vibrant and jocular, his drawings resemble desk scribbles, only with familiar political faces and references.

This picture taken on May 28, 2019 shows Chinese cartoonist Badiucao standing behind his artwork titled ‘Light’ in his studio in Melbourne. Badiucao, 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. Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AFP.

See also: Event: Hong Kong premiere of ‘China’s Artful Dissident’ – a film about political cartoonist Badiucao

But for Badiucao – who wore a mask and used a pseudonym to protect his identity – the stakes are much higher. So much so that the cartoonist and thorn in the side of the Chinese government has lived in Australia as a citizen for nearly a decade under heightened security measures. “The threat is real, the worrying is necessary,” he told HKFP last week in a telephone interview.

These words rung true last November when, on the eve of what would have been his first international solo exhibition Gongle, he was forced to cancel his show due to his cover being blown and subsequent threats made against his family in mainland China. Police had also told the artist they would send people to his exhibition if it were to continue.

China's Artful Dissident badiucao
Badiucao. Photo: China’s Artful Dissident.

Co-organiser HKFP issued a statement reading: “We are sorry to announce that the exhibition ‘Gongle,’ by Chinese artist Badiucao, has been cancelled out of safety concerns. The decision follows threats made by the Chinese authorities relating to the artist. Whilst the organisers value freedom of expression, the safety of our partners remains a major concern.”

In the days afterwards, mainland authorities reportedly congratulated Badiucao for behaving well: “It’s kind of a typical attitude from the Chinese government, they want to see themselves as parents or as an authority,” the artist said, adding that he cut off all contact with his family last year.

‘A terror tactic’

The revelation was a hammer blow to the clandestine artist, who laid low for what he said was a period of contemplation and crisis: “It is really not an easy period of my life,” he explained. “If I choose to be silent, it is a betrayal of my own beliefs but on the other hand, it may not necessarily bring me safety.”

China's Artful Dissident badiucao
Badiucao. Photo: China’s Artful Dissident.

“The choice is, do I remain silent for the rest of my life about China and human rights or do I make the decision to reveal myself and confront this terror and fear because ultimately, what the Chinese government tries to do is a terror tactic or a fear strategy, which makes you back down,” he said.

Now, Badiucao is back, defiant and unmasked, in the hour-long film China’s Artful Dissident by award-winning Australian director Danny Ben-Moshe, which documents the events leading up to the cancelled exhibition. The film is set to debut on ABC Australia on the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre on Tuesday. The crackdown occurred on June 4 1989, ending months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, died as the People’s Liberation Army was deployed to suppress protesters in Beijing.

YouTube video

China’s Artful Dissident follows Badiucao as he navigates the tripwires laid out in front of dissidents. The film begins with his preparations for the Hong Kong exhibition, featuring a so-called torture chair bought, ironically, from popular Chinese website Taobao, alongside a luminous neon outline of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo with his widow Liu Xia.

The documentary traces, with sensitivity, Badiucao’s decision to relinquish his anonymity – a choice, he said, he made a long time ago: “Being anonymous is not really fun, in a lot of ways. It paralyses your social life. You have to have a double life,” he explained. “I have to be very careful about the people I come into contact with and also the way I’m contacting people. These kinds of necessary procedures to protect my identity is not good for developing my career, or friends from the art community, or even journalists.”

“I’m not naïve. I’m not assuming my identity is a hundred per cent sealed. I have to make a plan B from the beginning,” he said. “The hard part is after I go public – confronting and accepting my decision.”

China's Artful Dissident badiucao
Liu Xia & Liu Xiaobo artwork. Photo: China’s Artful Dissident.

When asked if given the opportunity he would remain anonymous, Badiucao is reticent: “There are no ‘what ifs’ in the world,” he said. “At least now when people deal with me, they deal with the real me.”

Reflecting on his decision to push forward with the film despite the cancelled exhibition, the artist lets out a wry chuckle: “They said I was a good boy,” he said. “I guess now I’m just a naughty boy.”

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.