BEIJING—Bai Budan took a morning stroll on Tiananmen Square to find inspiration for a new series of satirical cartoons, an art form only barely alive in China.
He wondered about the sheer number of surveillance cameras installed on the square, opposite the iconic entrance to the Forbidden City with a huge portrait of Mao Zedong.
“These cameras are for whose safety? Are they for the safety of the ordinary people?” he asked.
He remembered the popular children’s song “I love Beijing Tiananmen” that he sang when he was young. He sketched the Mao portrait and made a note about updating the lyrics.
Back in his studio, he quickly drew two pink cupids pointing to three security cameras, with the Forbidden City as a background. The caption read: “I love the security cameras of Beijing Tiananmen.”
When he feels the work is finished, where will he show it? Who in China will see it? Those questions are fraught with risks.
Cartoons used as political satire have been rare in China since the 1949 Communist Revolution, though some began gaining notice about three years ago. In particular, single-panel cartoons from an artist known as Rebel Pepper were widely circulated on social media.
In December 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping made headlines for stopping to have a simple lunch of steamed buns in a small Beijing restaurant, in an event staged to portray China’s most powerful man as one of the people. Rebel Pepper’s rendition showed Xi as steamed bun surrounded by other breakfast foods kowtowing to him as though he were an old-time emperor. Another cartoon, in October 2014, shows Xi Jinping in bed with a nationalistic blogger named Zhou Xiaoping; Xi had praised Zhou, though the young man had drawn attention for writing exaggerated negative claims about the U.S.
Authorities abruptly closed social media accounts belonging to Rebel Pepper, whose real name is Wang Liming, and searched his house last year. He later went into self-exile in Japan. The crackdown was part of broader moves by the Chinese leadership to curb online discourse of intellectuals, lawyers and any groups pushing for societal change by working outside the Communist Party.
Bai avoids targeting leaders and instead takes aim at society in general, often using cute and irreverent cupid characters to make his point. Even so, his Facebook-style microblog account was terminated last year after he posted a cartoon of Tiananmen Square immersed in red ink. It looked like a possible reference to the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy students there by troops—still a taboo subject in China.
Bai says it is a challenge to show his cartoons to the public and that he often resorts to private exhibitions.
“I have not exhibited many of my paintings publicly. My Weibo account was closed down last year. But I try not to think too much about the possible risks. I try to think about positive things, or try to be optimistic,” Bai said.
“Any career has risks attached. Right?” he said during an interview outside his home in Beijing.
“A normal society would have these types of artists,” Chinese art critic Li Xianting said in an interview. “If no one raises their voice, then of course that is not a normal society.
“There are fewer and fewer cartoonists in China. This is because there is no space for them to grow. They have no access to the public and there is no platform for them. In the past, newspapers and print media played a very important role.”
Bai is originally from Shanxi, a mining province in the east of China. He creates cartoons using ink and inkstone on rice paper, and also remarks on social issues through photography and documentaries.
“All the things happening in our society concern me,” he said. “I think about them and I paint them.”