Tiananmen anniversary sparks protest art

This article was originally published under the headline “#TankMen2018, a global work of protest art” on 7-June-2018 by The Economist. Link to original article: HERE

To commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, people are dressing up as the famous dissident icon.

IN 1989 Fengsuo Zhou was a student at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Like many of his classmates, he went to Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 3rd to participate in peaceful demonstrations calling for a more democratic government. There he witnessed one of the darkest moments in China’s history: he was within spitting distance of the tanks that crushed young demonstrators. His role as a student leader earned him fifth position on China’s most-wanted list. Now, nearly 30 years from the day that would change his life forever, he wants to find a new way to memorialise it.

Mr Zhou has long been a friend and inspiration to Badiucao, the pseudonym of a Chinese artist, who shared his desire to redefine the memory of Tiananmen. In 2016, Badiucao created a piece of performance art in Adelaide, Australia, where he had emigrated. He stood on a busy street corner and “became” Tank Man, the unidentified figure who stoically confronted the tanks on the morning of June 5th 1989. Repeatedly shifting his position and blocking the tanks’ way as they tried to manoeuvre around him, Tank Man became a symbol, in the West at least, of peaceful resistance, personal dignity against brute force and the individual against the totalitarian regime. The most circulated photo of him, captured from a sixth-floor balcony in the Beijing Hotel, has become synonymous with the tragic events at Tiananmen Square and is considered one of the best-known images of the 20th century.

Dressed in black trousers, a white shirt and leather shoes, holding a white plastic bag in each hand, Badiucao replicated Tank Man’s look and is now encouraging others to do the same. Over the past weekend and continuing through this week, people in Paris, London, Berlin, Washington, Hong Kong, Sydney, Wellington and Toronto have followed Badiucao’s lead and are taking to the streets in Tank Man’s distinctive garb as a way of celebrating his memory.

They are using it as a symbol of continued Chinese government repression, too. Many covered their white plastic bags with artistic memes created by Badiucao—colourful, playful images downloadable from his website—that reference censorship in modern China. The Winnie the Pooh meme, for instance, reflects a popular joke about China’s president, Xi Jinping, whose physique is often likened to that of the bear. Images of the cartoon have been censored in China, especially since February, following the announcement that it could become constitutionally possible for Mr Xi to rule indefinitely. Among the most popular images provoking censorship is one of Pooh Bear hugging a pot of honey, captioned “Find the thing you love and stick with it.” If Tank Man’s bags look “as if they are his magic weapons to defeat the tanks in front of him,” Badiucao says, today’s activists have “online satire and resistance” as extra weapons in their arsenal.

An important addition to Badiucao’s artwork is Tank Woman. Writing on his website, he says that he decided to add a female counterpart and encourage women to participate in order to underscore that in 1989, as today, “there are so many important female dissidents actively promoting and sacrificing for human rights campaigns in China.” He makes special mention of the wives of activist lawyers who fight for their detained husbands, and also of female university students, including Yue Xin, who are raising awareness of #MeToo. Following the censorship of the #MeToo hashtag, a Chinese student activist based in Canada came up with an alternative to stump the censors: mitu. It sounds the same, but in Chinese it means “rice bunny.” This cheeky play on words is telling of how creative activists must be in China, where protests and demonstrations are usually forbidden. “You need to find a little grey area and play around in it,” explains Badiucao, who is well-versed in the game. “You always need to improvise.” He has added a rice bunny #MeToo meme to his website.

Using art to challenge censorship and to rewrite a history that has been tampered with or forgotten has become Badiucao’s calling card. His hope is to turn Tank Man into an international symbol not just of resisting repression in China, but of the need to define and defend human rights. Jade Dussart, who works with Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture and is facilitating Tank Man appearances on Trocadéro Square in Paris, is one of many helping Badiucao achieve his mission. “Every year, activists are monitored, put under house arrest, intimidated, forced to travel or detained ahead of June 4th. Public commemorations are forbidden. Families of victims can only grieve under high police surveillance. We need to do it for those who cannot,” she says.

He has settled in Australia, but Badiucao still monitors the news at home. Like Mr Zhou, the student leader from Tsinghua University, he is amazed by the radical ways in which China has changed since 1989, but laments that as far as political, religious and certain personal freedoms are concerned, the evolution has been limited. “When the government sees a lot of people trying to do something without their instruction, they just snap. Every time it is like this,” he said. “Even if the government and the people ultimately have the same goal—if the command doesn’t come from them, they simply can’t accept it.”

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