Ahead of the planned opening of an exhibition by dissident Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao in Warsaw tomorrow, ARTICLE 19 condemns efforts by Chinese embassy officials to have it closed due to the artist’s criticism of China’s human rights violations.
The attempts to censor artistic expression and intimidate those who organise the exhibition are a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression. We urge the Chinese Government to refrain from its transnational repression immediately. We also urge the Polish Government to firmly reject suppression of political dissent through art in this and other cases in Poland and to protect against, and ensure accountability for, such violations.
Michael Caster, Interim Head of ARTICLE 19 Asia Programme commented:
Art today is one of the most powerful tools to challenge the status quo and rebuke authoritarianism, to stand up for human rights, and to defiantly evoke freedom where repression seeks to dominate.
Chinese officials are trying to suppress Badiucao because they fear the power of truth in his art. They must immediately cease these attacks on artistic expression. China frequently seeks to dismiss criticism of its human rights record as an interference in its sovereignty but in extending its authoritarian reach to silence free expression in Poland, it yet again reveals the emptiness of its pleas to state sovereignty.
The Polish Government should also make sure that guarantees of freedom of expression in the form of art in international and regional human rights standards are respected in the country – both for artists and their audiences.
According to Badiucao, the Chinese authorities have been pressuring the museum and the Polish Government to have the upcoming exhibition closed, as they consider it “an attack against the image of China and Chinese leaders” and hurtful to “Chinese people’s feelings.” In a statement, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, which will host the exhibition, confirmed that a high ranking diplomat visited the Centre last week. The Chinese embassy has also written to the Polish government to have the exhibition shut down, saying it risks ‘undermining’ bilateral relations between China and Poland.
Through his work, Badiucao has criticised Chinese government human rights violations. In his latest exhibit, due to open on 16 June in Warsaw, includes a painting of the Chinese President Xi Jinping eating human flesh, referencing Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.
His exhibition in Poland, Tell China’s Story Well is a reference to China’s strategy of spreading state propaganda internationally, initiated under Xi Jinping in 2013. But for Badiucao, his art takes aims at what he sees as China’s real story:
A story of ongoing human rights violations, the manipulation of historical memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square events, censorship inflicted on Chinese citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic, forced cultural assimilation of the Uyghurs, protests in which Hong Kong residents fought to oppose government policy, and the disturbing relationship between China and Russia in light of the war in Ukraine.
This is not the first time Badiucao has faced attempts to censor his art. In 2018, his exhibition in Hong Kong was shut down, after threats to his family. His shows in Italy and Czech Republic have also faced pressure.
ARTICLE 19 reminds the Chinese and Polish Governments that art is explicitly highlighted as a form of protected expression under international law. As such, the right to freedom of artistic expression must be respected, protected and fulfilled by all states in the same manner that other forms of expression are. International human rights mechanisms, including the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and promotion and protection of the freedom of opinion and expression or the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, have repeatedly recognised the important role of artistic expression and creativity in the development of society. Importantly, international freedom of expression standards also protect expressions that may “offend, shock or disturb” parts of the population.
It is fitting that an exhibit titled ‘Tell China’s Story Well’, meant as satire of its propaganda efforts to present one face to the world, would provoke this repressive backlash only to once again reveal China’s true face to the world, said Caster.