A Chinese Dissident Artist Is Taking Aim at Google for Censored Search Engine

Badiucao’s new exhibition compares Google's censored search engine for China, codenamed Dragonfly, to Donald Trump's wall.

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Nov 1 2018, 2:00pm

A portrait merging the faces of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, symbolising Beijing’s creeping influence on Hong Kong. Image: Badiucao

UPDATE, Nov 2, 2018, 9:50 AM EST: Motherboard has learned that artist Badiucao’s exhibition “Gongle” has been cancelled due to security concerns. “The decision follows threats made by the Chinese authorities relating to the artist,” a representative of the Hong Kong Free Press said in a written statement. The cancellation comes on the eve of Free Expression Week, a programming series organized by the Hong Kong Free Press, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders, designed to examine freedom of expression in post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong. We’ll be updating this post as we learn more.

Badiucao’s new exhibition launches in Hong Kong on November 3, but the Chinese artist and cartoonist won’t be attending it, because he’s scared that if he does he’ll be “disappeared” by Communist Party of China (CPC) agents.

“I’m worried I’d become another Gui Minhai,” Badiucao told me in a phone interview, referring to the Swedish national who ‘went missing’ in Thailand in 2015 after publishing books about Chinese President Xi Jinping, and who remains in the custody of Chinese authorities.

Irked by Google readying a new search engine that will censor subjects the CPC wants hidden from the Chinese public—such as its human rights abuses against over a million Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region—Badiucao has prepared Gongle: his new exhibition. He has depicted Google CEO Sundar Pichai wearing a Trump-esque red cap bearing the slogan ‘Make wall great again’: a reference to the CPC’s ‘Great Firewall,’ that blocks thousands of sites and apps, including Google's search engine.

Badiucao is a pseudonym and the artist resides outside China. Such caution is sensible in the current climate. Badiucao made his name, albeit a fake one, by being a sharp critic of the Chinese government, celebrating political prisoners like the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and ridiculing President Xi Jinping in his works.

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Xi Jinping takes down Winnie the Pooh, who is censored in China due to people comparing the fictional bear with the Chinese President. Image: Badiucao

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 abroad and in the shadows he has been able to escape repercussions, and has now focused his critical crosshairs on Google. Last month he got a batch of the caps made for real and distributed them around Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

The move saw him join a growing chorus featuring human rights groups, ex-employees, and US Senator Ted Cruz, all pressuring Google over Dragonfly, the project name for Google's forthcoming censored engine for the Chinese market.

Dragonfly marks a depressing turn for Google, which withdrew from China in 2010 citing free speech issues. “When Google left everyone applauded,” Badiucao said. “It encouraged people to say: ‘You can say “no” to the Chinese government.’ Dragonfly has smashed this good dream. It’s as if Google is telling the Chinese: ‘This is hopeless.‘”

Gongle
Badiucao’s depiction of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who has defended Google developing a censored search engine for the Chinese market. Image: Badiucao

I recently had the chance to chat more with Badiucao 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: Before, Chinese people saw Google as a moral model for how you operate an internet company. We have one of the biggest corporations of this world kneeling, now. Google is almost like symbol for ‘internet,’ and with this saga people lose hope for the internet. It was hope that the individual could share information and possibly trigger change for society. This is important not just for China, but on a global scale. People should be aware of it.

"What Google did is the same thing Trump is talking about: building the wall."

Google’s move comes at a time when Beijing is launching increasingly authoritarian surveillance techniques on and offline…
China is moving its focus to be a digital dictatorship. It’s throwing CCTV cameras around the country, introducing social credit to measure citizens … with Google [launching Dragonfly] it’s almost as if [the company is saying]: ‘This idea of the Chinese internet of the future is accepted by the world.’ This is seriously problematic.

And the best way to highlight this is by depicting Sundar Pichai in a red ‘Make wall great again’ cap?
It’s in the style of a Chinese Cultural Revolution-era poster. Collaborating with Chinese censorship… there’s no difference between that and joining the propaganda system. What Google did is the same thing Trump is talking about: building the wall. Only this wall is invisible, it’s stopping Chinese people getting access to information. This work came with an action: I was in Google’s headquarters to give away the caps and ask employees about Dragonfly.

Google campus
One of the ‘Make wall great again’ caps distributed at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Image: Badiucao

How did that go down?
I told them I was making a programme called Google for China. Most of them avoided questions once I mentioned Dragonfly. Someone said, ‘I’m not allowed to comment on it.’ One or two employees told me they didn’t agree with it.

Did any defend Dragonfly?
There was one interesting group of Chinese employees. They told me: ‘I’m proud of it… my dad will be able to use Google in China.‘”

Pichai claimed that the service will improve information access for Chinese users, despite being censored. Is it not progress?
If Google is as noble as they argue they should develop software to infiltrate the Great Firewall and help people access ‘no restriction’ Google. By collaborating with the Chinese government we’re talking about jeopardising the safety of potential dissidents. It’s stripping away the hope of Chinese people.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo
Badiucao’s cartoon of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo and the poet Liu Xia, his wife. It was created after Liu Xiaobo died of cancer while in custody in China. Image: Badiucao

Before Pichai you made a cartoon of Liu Xiaobo, which went viral then got censored in China. How did it feel, making an image that got such attention?
He’s kind of a monument and for that image, it was a raw reaction. It was from a photo that was spread widely, of him in his patient uniform with Liu Xia [the poet and Liu Xiaobo’s wife]. People complained about no longer being able to post it [due to censorship] so my reaction was: ‘How do I make it 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 remains censored, though. Does your work feel futile, often not reaching people in China?
It’s not easy to get my message out, but it’s happening. There is a relatively small amount of Chinese Twitter users, but some download my work then post inside China. There are lots of international students who will go back to China, too. Compared with words, images are harder to censor. I was reading about how Chinese censors convert images into black and white, then detect that image. But if you create works using colours with similar enough tones, when they are transformed into black and white they make a totally grey image. That’s something I’m experimenting with.

Do you live in fear of Beijing?
It’s not an easy life. You almost have to split yourself into two people. I’m just an ordinary guy and most of the time I’m cowardly compared to people like Ai Weiwei, who go straight up. Apparently I’m not as brave as they are. 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’d be more free.

Gongle’s opening party is on the evening of November 3 at The Hive Spring in Remex Centre in Hong Kong, then the show runs until November 13. See the Hong Kong Free Press website for details .