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Political cartoonist Badiucao abruptly cancelled his Hong Kong exhibition — and then went silent

“Gongle,” by Badiucao, is a play on words commenting on Google’s effort to re-enter China with a censored search engine. Used with permission.

Political cartoonist Badiucao was forced to cancel his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, due to threats from the central Chinese government.

The exhibition was scheduled to open on November 3 as the headline event at Hong Kong's Free Expression Week. On November 2, the organizers announced they were cancelling the event:

We are sorry to announce that the exhibition “Gongle,” by Chinese artist Badiucao, has been cancelled due to 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.

Badiucao has built his reputation on Twitter, drawing political cartoons that challenge censorship and dictatorship in China. The Chinese-Australian artist's work has been featured by The New York Times and The Guardian.

The event was seen by many as a test of the limits of free speech in Hong Kong, which enjoys more freedoms than mainland China, under a principle known as “One Country, Two Systems.” In recent years, Beijing has more forcefully asserted its influence over Hong Kong. Those who support more democratic rights, such as genuine universal suffrage, or outright independence, have faced fierce repression.

The organizers have not described the nature of the threats that the artist received. He is typically outspoken online, but has not updated his Twitter since November 1.

Badiucao had not intended to travel to Hong Kong, but was supposed to participate in a panel discussion via video call with Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, Hong Kong artists Sampson Wong and Oscar Ho, and Russian punk-rock protesters Olga Kuracheva and Veronika Nikulshina, both members of the band Pussy Riot.

Although the exhibition was cancelled, the panelists decided to proceed and hold a discussion about art and freedom of expression in a small studio. They live-streamed the event on Facebook.

Cedric Alviani, Olga Kuracheva, Veronika Nikulshina and Joshua Wong. Image from Hong Kong Free Press. Use with permission.

Chinese non-profit media the Stand News reported on the panel discussion in which Sampson Wong expressed concerns about Badiucao’s safety. He explained that he has been trying to contact the artist since November 2, but that Badiucao has been incommunicado. Wong saw the exhibition as a test case for freedom of expression in Hong Kong. He was disappointed that more people had not spoken out against the threats from Beijing.

Oscar Ho, a local art critic and scholar, was shocked by the cancellation. He pointed out that Beijing’s censorship practices in Hong Kong are unclear. There is a general expectation that Hong Kongers “should know” where the red line lies, but there are relatively few clear indications of what is and is not permissible. He expressed a desire for people to be more creative in fighting against censorship.

Joshua Wong said he wanted more exchange with international civil society, in hopes that international networks could help local groups defend democracy and freedom.

Pussy Riot member Olga Kuracheva emphasized the importance of public support and solidarity for people like Badiucao:

We are very sorry to know that things are getting worse here. I think it is very important to be here now just to express our solidarity… I would advise people not to be afraid, because one voice is not so much…but voices of solidarity should sound loud. (Quote from Hong Kong Free Press’ report)

Kuracheva and Nikulshina are among four members of Pussy Riot who served a 15-day jail sentence after protesting against Russian leader Vladimir Putin during the football World Cup final in Moscow in July 2018. They said threats to exhibitions and political art events are “common practice” in Russia.

Cedric Alviani from Reporters Without Borders pointed out that Hong Kong’s ranking on RSF's press freedom index has dropped from 18 in 2002 to 70 in 2018. He believed that the best way to support artists under threat is to disseminate their works in spaces where it is possible to do so.

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