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An artist's Olympic-themed work criticizes China's human rights violations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The images are stylish and eye-catching. At first glance, you might think they're posters advertising the Winter Olympics in Beijing. But on closer inspection, you see that they are scathing rebukes. There's the figure skater slicing through the flag of Hong Kong or the hockey player body-slamming a Tibetan monk. The images are one Chinese artist's critique of the brutal repression many in the world believe has been carried out by Chinese authorities.

His name is Badiucao. That's a pseudonym, by the way, meant to protect his identity. He was born in China and currently lives in Melbourne, Australia. Badiucao has been making provocative art that is critical of China's communist government for years, and his latest images are having an impact across continents as the Winter Games continue and journalists struggle to balance coverage of sport against the backdrop of ongoing human rights concerns. We called the artist to ask him why he wanted to create this series of Olympic-related images.

BADIUCAO: We know there are a lot of countries and governments are doing diplomatic boycotting against this Winter Olympic of China. However, I think there's still a gap between general public's understanding and those policymakers' decision. And art could be such an important way to actually educate and share the perspective of why the Chinese government should not be able or be entitled to host this Olympic, which is supposed to celebrate humanity.

MARTIN: I think, for me, anyway, one of the most shocking, disturbing images is that of a biathlete who appears to be getting ready to execute a person dressed to represent a member of the Uyghur minority in western China. You know, obviously, we don't have time to go into all the details here, but this has been a subject of significant concern. You know, in the West, it's one of a number of reasons why a number of governments have waged a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, which is to say that no high government officials are representing their governments, but the athletes have been allowed to participate. I was wondering why you chose the images that you chose or the particular scenes that you decided to focus on.

BADIUCAO: I think among all the human rights violations committed by the Chinese government, what has been happened to the Uyghur community in Xinjiang is one of the most sad and tragic one because there are more than a million people being sent into concentration camps from the Uyghur community. And it's ongoing genocide. A lot of people are being forced as slave laborers in the region and across China. That is why I choose to (unintelligible) along this very particular sport and use execution as a metaphor to showing how brutal the Chinese government is, targeting the Uyghur community in the Xinjiang region. It can be seen kind of controversial or sometimes even a little bit violent. However, I have to remind the people that what happened in China is a thousand times more terrible and violent, and art is merely showing the tip of the iceberg of all this crime and tragedy.

MARTIN: I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that your work is having an impact across continents. Last week at George Washington University here in Washington, D.C., a Chinese student group complained about your work, calling it racist. Some other students had displayed the posters that you created, and as I said, a Chinese student group complained that said it was racist. The president of the university initially agreed with the group but later reversed course and defended it as political speech. But I wonder, had you - first of all, had you heard about this? And what's your reaction to it?

BADIUCAO: Yeah, actually, yes. In fact, I have to highlight and - when we talk about the Chinese student in the GW, it is not a single group. Well, among Chinese student, there are different opinion flying as well. The ones who are accusing my art as like anti-China racism are from the group affiliated with the Chinese authority. But in fact, there are Chinese student who put up the poster in GW is actually from China. And I have to emphasize on this - when we're talking about Chinese students, they're not all kind of pro-Chinese government nationalists. There are Chinese students who try to see and introduce China to the West in a more objective view. And those are the kids who are actually putting the poster in the campus in the first place.

Of course, I feel not, you know - it's not a new experience to me when the Chinese government try to frame my art or activism as anti-China. However, as a China born, I love the country. I love the people there. I would never use my art to discriminate ordinary Chinese people. It is always very clear to targeting the Chinese government. However, those Chinese government-affiliated group is very good at confusing the very concept between people, country and government. It has happened a lot of time. But I think, fortunately, this time, GW actually did a much better choices after the first initial reaction. So now the situation has been changed.

MARTIN: People, obviously - you know, and artists hate it when you ask people what you want them - people to draw from their work because, you know, you've presented it. And it's for people to draw their own conclusions. So apologies - I totally understand that. But I am interested if you are hoping for something from this series that you have produced around the Olympics.

BADIUCAO: I think there are a lot of people knowing and caring about China, but also there are a lot of people who still have this stereotype or are not entirely understanding what is going on in China. And China has this - the Chinese government has a great, sophisticated propaganda system circulating around the world. So I really want my art to just opening a window to the other side of China to start a conversation on those very important topics of human rights to show the public what is really going on. Every drop of art is a piece of start that conversation, start debate, and I believe - I always believe in freedom of speech. I always believe in communication, and my art is merely a window or a start for those conversation. And I think that's very important.

MARTIN: That is Badiucao. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. Badiucao, thank you so much for talking with us.

BADIUCAO: Thank you. It's great to join you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.