Arts & Culture

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Chinese-Australian cartoonist Badiucao walks a fine line to avoid being politically hijacked


Image by Chinese-Australian cartoonist Badiucao alluding to the fact that several companies, including Muji, are believed to purchase cotton harvested by ethnic Uyghur prisoners in Xinjiang. Image used with permission.

Being in the middle of two countries currently engaged in one of their worst rows in years is a difficult space to navigate, even more so if one is an outspoken visual artist. This is precisely the case of Badiucao, a Chinese-Australian cartoonist known for his stand on human rights, freedom of expression and fight against racism who, even while being targeted by Beijing supporters, finds himself increasingly isolated and alienated by all sides in Australia.

Born in mainland China, Badiucao sought political asylum in Australia where he is now a citizen. His art seeks to act as a voice of reason, denounce political instrumentalization and support human rights globally.

A turning point in bilateral relations between Australia and China came in 2020, significantly worsened by a series of economic, political and ideological disputes that still remain unsolved. Until last year, both countries enjoyed an economic honeymoon: in 2014, Canberra and Beijing announced their relationship to be a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. By the time they reached the peak of their economic integration in 2019, China had absorbed over a quarter of Australia's trade, and in that year alone, 1.4 million Chinese tourists had visited Australia.

By 2020, the partnership deteriorated as Australia raised serious concerns about issues of human rights and democracy in the context of the many Chinese-Australian citizens, Hong Kong and pro-Taiwan students that were targeted and sometimes attacked by pro-Beijing supporters in Australia. Beijing rejected the criticism and retaliated by imposing a series of bans on key Australian imports. The situation escalated towards the end of 2020 when China decided to stop purchasing key commodities, such as coal, from Australia — a ban that possibly caused power shortages for millions of Chinese.

In an interview by phone with Global Voices, Badiucao suggested that the diplomatic fall-out should not have come as a total surprise:

I think the problem has been present for a very long time, because it was never mutually beneficial. China sees Australia as a ground for infiltration, from education to politics to media. For such a long time, the Australian government was short-sighted about this relationship, it only saw the economic benefit, but [not] much beyond. 

The COVID-19 pandemic did not help matters. Many of the estimated 260,000 Chinese students who were in Australia in 2019 were prevented from returning, and Canberra accused Beijing of a lack of transparency in its management of the pandemic. The impasse has damaged both sides: society and government bodies have engaged in anti-China or anti-Australia movements, some of them violently racist.


Wine label designed by Badiucao calling for other countries to buy Australian wine after China banned its imports. Image used with permission.

To explain the crisis, Badiucao points to a fundamental difference in values and tolerance for criticism between the countries:

Australia has realized that this toxic relationship has to end and that basic values, such as freedom and democracy, can no longer be overlooked. Canberra wants to make clear [that] the relationship must be mutually beneficial, and that Beijing needs to know the difference in their value systems. However, China is not used to any kind of criticism of its government, and responds in an outrageous manner, particularly under Xi Jinping's strategy of wolf warrior diplomacy. 

The cartoonist believes the crisis is a healthy eye-opener not only for Australia, but for the rest of the world, when determining whether to depend economically on China:

I think that because of the geographic locations of China and Australia, we are the first country in the free world seeing the problems of this relationship. China is not willing to play by the rules like other democratic countries. I hope there could be an alliance against those bully threats China can project on countries like Australia, as in the case of the wine exports.

A narrow space for democracy

While this crisis might indeed be a wake-up call, Badiucao is finding it increasingly difficult to make his voice heard in Australia. While the right and far-right have a strong anti-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) line, that discourse, he explains, often includes elements of xenophobia and racism. Many on the left, meanwhile, are afraid to criticize China in the name of political correctness, lest they be accused of supporting racism.

Within Australia's Chinese communities, the narratives are even more complex and do not favour Badiucao. An estimated 1.2 million Chinese Australians (nearly six percent of the total population), come from very different geographies, as Badiucao decodes:

We often overlook the differences within the community: there are second or third generations; they don’t really know much about what is happening in mainland China, and they might have a sense of nostalgia more related to Jackie Chan movies. There are also recent Hong Kong immigrants who have a different understanding of their identity and political stand. But here is the bottom line: we have to tell the difference between people [and] government. The Chinese government does not represent the Chinese people. Unfortunately, some Chinese-Australians are brainwashed by platforms […] in Australia.

Badiucao thinks the Australian government is not doing enough to communicate this distinction between the Chinese government and being Chinese, and that it needs to invest in the Chinese-Australian community much more efficiently in order to counterbalance Beijing propaganda filtering through WeChat and TikTok. 

Cartoons for human rights

For Badiucao, the best way to spread the message of universal human rights is through his art. Political cartoons require no or little translation and can be immediately understood worldwide. Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a positive effect on his outreach. Offline art events have virtually stopped, but Badiucao has always relied on social media to share his art, which has worked to his advantage.

His cartoon transposing the iconic Beijing 1989 TankMan to the context of Trump's America shows how powerful his integration of global images can be:


Image of the 1989 Tiananmen Square iconic Tank Man transposed to the context of Trump's America, by Badiucao. Image used with permission.

Political satirical art may be global, but Badiucao warns against the manipulation around this form of freedom of expression that occurs in authoritarian countries like China. In November and December 2020, Wuhe Qilin (乌合麒麟 ), a satirical artist based in mainland China, released a series of photoshopped images pointing at an investigation conducted by Australia's own military, which found that the country's soldiers may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

Badiucao explains why one should be very careful when comparing the role and function of cartoon art in China and in democracies:

I wouldn't use the term ‘artist’ or ‘political cartoonist': the whole narrative [that] he is an independent artist who cares about human rights in Afghanistan is bogus. Here is a telling detail: the work he posted on November 23 on Weibo has no signature of the user ID and no time stamp, which is mandatory as per Weibo regulations. This could indicate Wuhe Qilin himself provided the original copy to the Chinese authorities. Besides, for a long time, he smeared Fang Fang, the author of the Wuhan Diary, [portraying her] as a villain hired by the CIA. He is not an independent artist, because there is no such thing as independence in China. If you don’t collaborate, you don’t have a shred of space to survive or you end up in prison. 

Baiduacao responded to Wuhe Qilin via a series of images showing a PLA (People's Liberation Army) soldier repeating the same gesture aimed at Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong people, wondering whether China would allow Wuhe Qilin to be critical of his own country's violations of human rights:

‘Life and Limb’: Foresters on the front line of climate change in Vanuatu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/10/2020 - 8:48am in

The documentary follows Vanuatu's foresters


Foresters in Vanuatu. Source: Facebook page of Vanuatu Department of Forest.

One of the films being screened at the ongoing 2020 Eugene Environmental Film Festival is ‘Life and Limb’ which features the work of foresters in Vanuatu.

The Eugene Environmental Film Festival highlights initiatives around the world that share  “a deep connection and responsibility to protect the environment and work in solidarity with others in the struggle toward environmental justice.” This year the festival is free and all films are screened online.

Vanuatu is a South Pacific nation of 80 islands. It is extremely vulnerable to climate change, in particular the threat posed by rising sea levels to coastal communities.

One of the environmental protection initiatives that the Vanuatu government has recently launched aims to make an inventory of forest lands on 12 major islands. This was last done 30 years ago.

Ginny Stein, a veteran Australian journalist and filmmaker, documented this work. Stein has been helping Vanuatu’s Department of Forestry as a volunteer and consultant.

Global Voices emailed Stein and asked what inspired her to document the work of the foresters:

After a long career as a foreign correspondent and film maker, I moved to Vanuatu to work as a volunteer in communications at the Department of Forestry.

The National Forest Inventory kicked off while I was there. I thought it was a great chance to teach foresters about the power of media in raising public awareness about what they do. I was fortunate to get a chance to work with them, to talk about filming using phones and tablets, before they departed for the field.

She added how her team decided to make a documentary:

They started sending me short video clips which I would turn into social media videos and post on the forestry Facebook page. At the same time, I had the chance to meet up with them in the field, on a number of islands where I would film with them. Over the course of six months, I realised we had enough material to make a documentary, which is how ‘Life and Limb’ came together.

The documentary follows a team of foresters who are part of the government project to make an inventory of the forest lands and offers a glimpse into their battle against climate change. It also shows the importance of the forest in Vanuatu culture and how logging for several decades has gravely affected the ecological balance in the country’s small islands.

It also narrated the impact of the rise in cash-crop demand on Vanuatu’s agricultural and forest lands.

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For the past year I have worked with the Forestry Department of Vanuatu to help protect one of this South Pacific Island's most unique and valuable resources….its forests. Foresters became camera operators as they began the first stocktake of the island's forests in more than 30 years. The proof of everyone's efforts…a documentary "Life and Limb" will be launched next week at the Australian High Commission in Port Vila. For the past few weeks, we have all watched from here in horror as Australia's forests have burned. Vanuatu, a small pacific island on the front lines of climate change, is one of a number of island countries that has chipped in to help Australian firefighters. This documentary is about Vanuatu's forests, but it highlights the value of forests to people's lives the world over. Tankio tumas olgeta blong Vanuatu and all who helped make it. #forestartist #forestmapping #forests #conservation #lifeandlimb #climateemergency #wildlife #wildseas #kauri #nabunga #forestry #climatechange #climate #sustainability #theworld #camera #documentary

A post shared by VanuatuForestryDepartment (@vanuatuforestrydepartment) on Jan 6, 2020 at 7:49pm PST

Stein explained some of the challenges faced by the foresters:

For the teams, the biggest challenge was getting to where they had to go, by boat, truck, or foot. And the weather. They were reliant on the support of communities. For me, connecting with them was the greatest challenge. And data is really expensive in Vanuatu.

The film was screened in Vanuatu in January 2020. Stein shared the feedback of the audience:

Showing the film the first time and watching the reaction of foresters was priceless. There was lots of joy and pride in what they had done. And a thrill of seeing themselves on the big screen. Taking it into communities was very rewarding. At Hog Harbour in Santo, people watched it at an outdoor screening. There was laughter and joy at seeing ni-Vanuatu working for their country. People really loved the music as well. I was lucky that Vanuatu's Cultural Centre gave me access to some of their archived music and that the Soul Harvest Choir also allowed me to use some music I recorded with them.

Finally, Stein’s message to the international community:

My message is please watch “Life and Limb”, and please support those on the frontlines of climate change who are working hard knowing there are great challenges coming their way. You can do that by taking action yourself, wherever you are. By learning more about climate change, and calling on your representatives to start taking action now.

The whole film can be watched by visiting the website of the Eugene Environmental Film Festival. Watch the film’s trailer here: