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Czech venue pushes back against pressure from China to cancel Badiucao’s cartoons

Organizers of an exhibition by dissident cartoonist Badiucao in the Czech Republic have refused to cancel the event despite pressure from the Chinese embassy, who said his work “slanders Chinese leaders and hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.”

Badiucao’s exhibit, which is touring the world under the title “MADe IN CHINA,” opened as planned on Thursday at the DOX Contemporary Art Center in Prague

It includes works referencing the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong, Chinese support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s genocidal policies targeting Uyghurs and the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns under CCP leader Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy.

One work merges the faces of Xi and outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, to express the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms under the CCP, while another merges Xi’s face with that of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the first work visitors see entering the exhibit.

The works have clearly ruffled feathers in Beijing.

On the afternoon of May 11, DOX Contemporary Art Center project director Michaela Šilpochová suddenly received a call from Hao Hong, a cultural affairs department official at the Chinese embassy, to her private cell phone.

Hao Hong said they were calling on the order of the Chinese embassy, and accused Badiucao’s work of “smearing the image of China’s leaders” and “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” and warned that the exhibition would “destroy the relationship between the two countries.”

Šilpochová responded that the center wouldn’t cancel the show, with DOX Contemporary Art Center chief Leoš Válka saying that the Chinese embassy had tried to put pressure on him in the past, and his lack of cooperation was likely why they hadn’t called him again. He said DOX Art Center refused to tolerate “intimidation and threats.”

Hao Hong confirmed she had made the call when contacted by RFA.

“I expressed serious concern about this exhibition on behalf of the embassy, and told Šilpochová that they shouldn’t be putting on an exhibition that hurts the feelings of the Chinese people,” Hao said. “I heard that this exhibition had already been held in Italy, so we knew the content of this exhibition.”

“So we just had to express our opposition,” she said, accusing Badiucao of using politics to attract attention to himself.

“Do artists have to express their political views and become famous by hurting this country and its leaders? I think it may be in order to attract the attention of people who are less friendly to China, and to use art to achieve a political goal,” Hao told RFA.

Badiucao said he was no stranger to Beijing’s ire.

“The Chinese government regards all criticisms as smears,” he told RFA. “But all that stuff about hurt feelings and smears is just a pretext for them to avoid criticism and oversight.”

“My exhibition criticizes the Chinese government, and also praises the resistance of Chinese people faced with political dilemmas,” he said, citing late whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang and late Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.

“I am a Chinese person myself, and I have never discriminated against Chinese people or wanted to hurt the Chinese people’s feelings,” he said. “But this government doesn’t represent the people or speak for them, because it’s not democratically elected.”

He said politics and art mix well together.

“Art should intervene in politics,” he said. “I would rather a society where art interferes in politics than one where politics interferes with art.”

He hit out at the attempts by the CCP to silence him overseas.

“Stifling expression, censorship, and threats against artists are ridiculous in a democratic country,” Badiucao said. “The Czechs once also lived in an authoritarian society, and the memory of being censored is very strong for them. In doing this, the Chinese government is reactivating painful memories of their history,”

He said the exhibit was more likely to encourage more people to understand contemporary China, and arouse empathy for the Chinese people, than to smear China.

Zhou Fengsuo, chairman of Humanitarian China, was present during the phone call between Hao and Šilpochová.

“The Chinese embassy in the Czech Republic had a strong response, saying that it would endanger the relationship between China and the Czech Republic,” he said. “I heard the same thing when a statue of Liu Xiaobo was erected here three years ago.”

“On the one hand it is ridiculous, on the other hand it is hateful. The CCP is afraid of Badiucao’s work and tries to silence opposition anywhere in the world … but the Czech Republic has a tradition of supporting free expression and opposing authoritarian rule.”

Known as “China’s Banksy, Badiucao, 36, emigrated to Australia in 2009, where he has continued to produce political cartoons taking aim at the CCP’s human rights record.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.