The Chinese forget their culture

Shanghai 2007. Three Chinese students are sitting in their booth and are watching a Kung Fu film that they have illegally downloaded from the Internet. An ordinary day until the moment when the film suddenly breaks off and flows seamlessly into a foreign documentary. For the first time in their lives they see pictures of tanks rolling over Chinese students in the center of their capital.

It is a documentary about the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square. The three do not dare to believe what they are seeing. After three hours the film is over, nobody in the room says a word, nobody moves. They suspect that they have seen something that does not appear in China's official historiography, that should never have happened, and was thus erased from people's minds. Can that even be true? Were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of demonstrating students really killed by the Chinese army?

One of the three is studying law; the questions and doubts never let go of him. He lost all confidence in his home country and emigrated to Australia in 2009 after completing his studies. He gets by, works as a teacher at a school. In 2011, a serious railway accident occurred in the east Chinese coastal city of Wenzhou, with 40 dead and more than 200 injured. It transpires that Chinese officials are trying to cover up the causes of the accident, once again.

Badiucao's weapons are pens, posters, glue, and aerosol cans

The former law student no longer wants to accept this, he decides to do something. During the day he continues to work as a teacher, but at night he takes on the role of a subversive hero. Not Batman, not Spiderman, but Badiucao, a name he created at random. Badiucao's weapons are pens, posters, glue, and aerosol cans. He turns into a nocturnal underground street artist, similar to Banksy. Masked with a brightly patterned ski mask, he pasted pedestrian tunnels and crossings with drawings critical of China, and posted his peculiar caricatures on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, which draw attention to grievances in China.

The train wreck, the Tiananmen massacre, the trade war between the US and China, the growing influence of China in Australia, digital censorship and the protests in Hong Kong are some of his topics. With a simple, memorable imagery, he scratches the make-up with which the Communist Party struggles to cover up the wounds of China. Stylistically, he is based on comics and the propaganda posters from the cultural revolution. With the adaptation of this poster aesthetic, Badiucao is defeating the Chinese government with its own weapons. His drawings should be understandable at a glance. "I have no copyright on it. Anyone can download, copy, share and distribute the pictures." For him, it's about the public, about freedom of expression and about encouragement.

"In theory, anyone can become a Badiucao"

His pseudonym Badiucao deliberately has no meaning, it is a protective coat and a hollow form for like-minded people. "In theory, anyone can become a Badiucao." He has many names on Weibo to post his drawings. But he is tracked down and blocked again and again. Nevertheless, he has a small time gap to bypass the algorithms of the censorship machine. The image recognition is slower than the automated keyword search of the censors. He now only spreads his picture messages via Twitter and Instagram. These platforms, like Google and Facebook, are blocked in China, but young Chinese have their secret entrances.

"When the censorship in China suddenly bans something completely harmless and normal, people will start asking why. And when they ask, that's the beginning of change." Badiucao is realistic, he knows that he cannot change the Chinese state or shake the foundations of the political system. But he wants to continue on a small scale, even if it sometimes seems hopeless.

His great role model is also a famous stranger. It is the man whose pictures went around the world when, on June 5, 1989, with two shopping bags in hand, he blocked a tank's path to Tiananmen Square. This scene was filmed, photographed and disseminated by foreign journalists. As "Tank Man" the man, whose whereabouts and identity are still puzzled, became a symbol of peaceful protest.

Badiucao sees himself in the tradition of Tank Man and has the image of the famous scene tattooed on his upper arm. In 2018 he started the "Tank Men Performance" on the 29th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. On Twitter, he called on everyone to dress up like Tank Man and to line up in busy places. He gave precise instructions on the Internet: white shirt, black pants, mask, a shopping bag in each hand, a white square as a base. The photo should then be posted. He positioned himself in front of the Brandenburg Gate; Winnie the Pooh was emblazoned on the two bags.

The Chinese Banksy

Badiucao, the Chinese Banksy, doesn't make any money with his art. He could sell his prints, but no gallery will represent him. He is wanted and hunted by Chinese authorities. Its eventful history was also documented on film. The British-Australian director Danny Ben-Moshe accompanied Badiucao around the globe for over three years. The resulting documentary "China's Artful Dissident" premiered on Australian television on - how could it be otherwise - June 4th, 2019, the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. There were then previews in the Tate Modern in London, in Barcelona at the Human Rights Film Festival and in the Brandenburg Gate Foundation in Berlin.

Ben-Moshe shows touching moments, for example when Badiucao meets survivors of the Tiananmen massacre in San Francisco for the first time. He lets the audience witness Badiucao's nightly masked poster-sticking campaigns and daring performances. On a second level, the documentary tells of an extraordinary friendship that has developed between the director and the artist. As different as they are, they are united by the common struggle for more humanity in the world. Ben-Moshe recalls: "The most enriching moment for me was to see how the audience suddenly jumped up after the premiere in Melbourne and honored Badiucao with standing ovations when he stepped on stage."

Under pressure from the Chinese authorities, he takes off the mask

The film was originally supposed to end with a brilliant final chord, namely Badiucao's first solo show on Chinese soil - in an exhibition room of the Hong Kong Free Press, the director reveals. But it ends - beware, spoilers! - with the short-term and depressing cancellation of the exhibition the day before the opening. The decision to do so was made by the organizers because almost everyone involved, and especially Badiucao's family in China, were put under pressure and threatened. Since the Chinese authorities now apparently knew his family and name, the disappointing cancellation also led to the most serious decision of his life. While his director and friend held the cellphone camera, Badiucao took off the mask and showed his face. This ending was not planned and bound the two men in a special way.

The documentary changed the life of the 33-year-old Chinese in many ways. It shows how the doubting law student became a self-confident political activist and artist. After his exposure, the situation has not gotten any easier, the threats have not decreased. But now he faces his fear with an open visor.