Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao has told HKFP that the power of political satire comes from deconstructing authority and it can act as a “temporary painkiller” for Hongkongers traumatised by the ongoing pro-democracy protests.

In an exclusive live-streamed interview, the cartoonist shared his thoughts on the role of art in social movements and spoke of how humour and satire can empower activists.

Trauma and empowerment

Large-scale social unrest erupted last June over a now-axed extradition bill amid calls for democracy and a probe into police behaviour. Protesters are set to mark the one-year anniversary next month with some reporting cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As psychiatrists warn of a mental health crisis, Badiucao says art plays a role of comforting Hongkongers by injecting a sense of joy: “I think it’s very important to continue having this sense of humour within the protest… when people are breathing in tear gas.”

He said political satire allows the people to laugh at those in power: “I don’t think authoritarian regime[s], or tyranny, or dictators ever… understand the beauty of satire.”

Some of his work has taken aim at Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Chinese President Xi Jinping: “[It] kind of encourages people [by showing] that they are not God, they are not unchallengeable. We can achieve a lot of things within our fight,” he said, adding that people feel hopeful when regaining power through humour.

He cited English comic actor Charlie Chaplin’s famous movie The Great Dictator which satirised the Nazi regime: “The experience of the massacre of the Jews, the deaths of WWII is horrifying,” he said. “And now, the temporary aspirin, the temporary painkiller is the art, or the satire that we can use.”

Badiucao. Photo: China’s Artful Dissident.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster suspended a satirical show hours after the Communications Authority issued it with a warning for “insulting” the police force.

Linking to historic events

The artist’s latest work was a collaboration with Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, who is known for his signature “Pillar of Shame” work, which depicts victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Almost 31 year ago, People’s Liberation Army and tanks were deployed to crack down a student-led movement in Beijing, causing hundreds, perhaps, thousands of deaths.

The candlelight vigils in Victoria Park in 2014. Photo: HKFP.

In his latest cartoon, Badiucao recreated the historic “Tank Man” scene where an anonymous man faces a line of tanks near Tiananmen Square in 1989. The artist added a yellow umbrella – a pro-democracy symbol – and altered the tanks to resemble the coronavirus to symbolise Hong Kong government’s clampdown on protests citing public health concerns.

“I think it’s very important to connect… historic reference[s] and to revive them with the current understanding of the world,” he said, adding that knowledge is always based on previous experiences. “It’s been 31 years after the Tiananmen Massacre… But China is still the same China and Hong Kong is paying the same price as those students in 1989.”

Cartoon: Badiucao.

The artist-in-exile said he wanted people to remember and prevent “history repeating itself” through inaction: “Sometimes cracking down may not come with machine guns but it comes [in] different forms.”

He added that Beijing’s tactics have been evolving: “Their crackdown is more sophisticated coming with carefully designed propaganda. It might not seem as harsh as a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 but it’s as deadly and as vicious as what happened at that time.”

With June 4 fast approaching, the annual candlelight vigil at Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park may not go ahead due to extended social distancing measures amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

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Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.