Chinese dissident artist targets Google for Dragonfly project
A portrait fusing the faces of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong Managing Director Carrie Lam, symbolizing Beijing’s rampant influence over Hong Kong. Image: Badiucao
UPDATE, November 2, 2018, 9:50 a.m. EST: Motherboard has learned that the “Gongle” exhibition by artist Badiucao has been canceled for security reasons. “The decision follows threats made by Chinese authorities regarding the artist,” a representative of the Hong Kong Free Press said in a written statement. The cancellation comes on the eve of Freedom of Expression Week, a series of programs organized by Hong Kong Free Press, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, designed to examine free speech in the post-Umbrella movement in Hong Kong. We’ll update this article as we learn more.
Badiucao’s new exhibition will launch in Hong Kong on November 3, but the Chinese artist and cartoonist will not attend because he is afraid that if he does, he will be “disappeared” by Chinese Communist Party agents. (PCC).
“I’m afraid of becoming another Gui Minhai,” Badiucao told me in a telephone interview, referring to the Swedish national “disappeared” in Thailand in 2015 after publishing books about Chinese President Xi Jinping, and who remains in the custody of the Chinese authorities.
Angered by Google for preparing a new search engine that will censor topics the CCP wants to hide from the Chinese public, such as its human rights violations against more than a million Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, Badiucao prepared Gongle: his new exhibition. He represented Google CEO Sundar Pichai wearing a red Trump-esque cap with the slogan âMake wall great againâ: a reference to the CPC âGreat Firewallâ, which blocks thousands of sites and applications, including Google’s search engine.
Badiucao is a pseudonym and the artist resides outside of China. Such caution is in order in the current climate. Badiucao has made a name for himself, albeit a false one, for being a sharp critic of the Chinese government, for celebrating political prisoners like the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and for ridiculing President Xi Jinping in his work.
In China, where Xi’s crackdown on free speech and dissent has shocked human rights groups, such work would likely see Badiucao jailed for “subversion.” But by working overseas and in the shadows, he was able to escape repercussions and now has focused his criticism on Google. Last month, he had a batch of hats made and distributed to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.
The move saw him join a growing chorus of human rights groups, former employees, and US Senator Ted Cruz, all pressuring Google over Dragonfly, the name of the upcoming project. Google censored engine for the Chinese market.
Dragonfly marks a depressing turning point for Google, which withdrew from China in 2010 over free speech concerns. âWhen Google left, everyone applauded,â Badiucao said. âIt encouraged people to say, ‘You can say’ no ‘to the Chinese government.’ Dragonfly shattered this good dream. It is as if Google were saying to the Chinese: “It is hopeless”.
I recently had the chance to discuss with Badiucao more about the nature of his work. Our conversation (below) has been edited for length and clarity.
Motherboard: Why such a heavy attack on Google?
Badiucao: Previously, the Chinese viewed Google as a moral model for running an Internet business. We have one of the biggest companies in this world on its knees now. Google is almost like a symbol for “the Internet”, and with this saga, people are losing hope for the Internet. It was the hope that the individual could share information and eventually trigger change for the company. This is important not only for China, but globally. People should be aware of this.
“What Google did is the same thing Trump is talking about: build the wall.”
Google’s decision comes at a time when Beijing is launching increasingly authoritarian surveillance techniques online and offline …
China is focused on a digital dictatorship. It’s launching video surveillance cameras across the country, introducing social credit to measure citizensâ¦ with Google [launching Dragonfly] it’s almost as if [the company is saying]: ‘This idea of ââthe Chinese Internet of the future is accepted by the world.’ It is seriously problematic.
And the best way to highlight it is to represent Sundar Pichai in a red “Make wall great again” cap?
It is in the style of a poster from the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Collaborating with Chinese censorshipâ¦ there is no difference between that and joining the propaganda system. What Google did is the same thing Trump is talking about: build the wall. Only this wall is invisible, it prevents the Chinese from having access to information. This job came with an action: I was at Google headquarters giving the hats and interviewing employees on Dragonfly.
How did that happen ?
I told them I was doing a program called Google for China. Most of them avoided questions once I mentioned Dragonfly. Someone said: ‘I am not allowed to comment.’ One or two employees told me they didn’t agree.
Did anyone defend Dragonfly?
There was an interesting group of Chinese employees. They said, ‘I’m proud of itâ¦ my dad will be able to use Google in China.’ “
Pichai claimed that the service will improve access to information for Chinese users, despite its censorship. Isn’t this progress?
If Google is as noble as they claim to be, they should develop software to infiltrate the Great Firewall and help people access Google “unrestricted”. By working with the Chinese government, we are talking about compromising the safety of potential dissidents. It takes all hope away from the Chinese people.
Before Pichai, you did a Liu Xiaobo cartoon, which went viral and then was censored in China. How did it feel to you to create an image that captured such attention?
It’s kind of a monument and for this picture, it was a brutal reaction. It was from a widely circulated photo of him in his patient uniform with Liu Xia [the poet and Liu Xiaoboâs wife]. People complained that they could no longer publish it [due to censorship] so my reaction was, “How do I get it to circulate again?” I just extracted the simple elements. You don’t need the face as long as you have the pose.
Much of your work, however, remains censored. Does your job seem futile to you, often not reaching people in China?
It’s not easy to get my point across, but it does happen. There are relatively few Chinese Twitter users, but some upload my work and then post it in China. There are also a lot of international students who will be returning to China. Compared to words, pictures are more difficult to censor. I was reading how Chinese censors convert images to black and white and then detect this image. But if you create works using colors with sufficiently similar tones, when turned into black and white, they produce a completely gray image. It is something that I experience.
Do you live in fear of Beijing?
It is not an easy life. You almost have to split into two people. I’m just an ordinary guy and most of the time I’m cowardly to people like Ai Weiwei, who get straight to the point. Apparently I’m not as brave as them. But if I can find a path on which I can hide my identity, protect myself, and still express myself, it might encourage more people to join me. With more people joining me, I would be freer.
Gongle’s opening night will take place on the evening of November 3 at The source of the hive at the Remex center in Hong Kong, then the show runs until November 13. To see the Hong Kong Free Press website for details .