Artists' courage withers in Big Brother's shadow

Cartoonists in peril: In cultures as diverse as Hong Kong and Algeria, a climate of fear means comic strips are no longer a joke

Stephen Vines Hong Kong
Sunday 21 July 1996 23:02

"If you're scared, don't come in," says the sign at the entrance to an exhibition of cartoons by Zunzi, Hong Kong's best known and most controversial cartoonist. The sign seems exaggerated. After all, inside the exhibition hall there is nothing more than a series of cartoons.

However, outspoken cartoonists are an endangered species in Hong Kong. Only a handful of artists produce political cartoons and few publications will carry their work.

The dark shadow of China's rule, which begins next year, hangs over cartoonists as it does over many others who are likely to be regarded as dissidents. Larry Feign, an American who has been drawing cartoons in Hong Kong for more than a decade, says he is demoralised. He claims newspapers will only publish cartoons which "take no sides and express no opinions".

This is not Feign's style. Last year he was fired by the South China Morning Post newspaper, where he had a big following, on account of his "Lily Wong" cartoon strip. It was killed off after a possibly prophetic strip about killings of cartoonists.

China has long recognised that cartoons are a valuable political weapon, although political cartoons started to emerge in China only about 60 years ago, during the Sino-Japanese war. The Chinese Communist Party quickly grasped the value of this medium; many officials in charge of arts matters in China are former cartoonists.

China's tradition of political cartoons is not one of belly laughs. It draws on a knowledge of Chinese history and philosophy, presenting ideas as allegories. This makes the cartoons impenetrable for non-Chinese readers.

Zunzi says he tries to be funny. He stresses that his main aim "is to give my opinion, and if I can change society to a more liberal society, that would be great". But he dislikes the idea of imposing his views on the readers, saying he really wants to make people think for themselves.

In China itself cartoonists are restrained, although Feign believes they "can go a little further than anyone else" in expressing controversial views.

He recalls the furore about seven years ago, when a cartoon was published which showed the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, playing bridge and smoking, using the traditional cartoonist's technique of exaggerating his features. Nowadays a caricature of this kind could scarcely be published.

As for Zunzi, his stock in trade is making fun of Chinese leaders. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he published a particularly savage cartoon, showing Mr Deng and the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, sitting in an actor's dressing room, applying bloody-looking lipstick. Mr Deng is seen reading a script entitled "The World's Greatest Leader", while on the floor a democracy protester is dying.

Zunzi does not spare British leaders. The former governor, David Wilson, was depicted as a colonial buffoon in a feathered cap. Chris Patten, the current Governor, is usually shown as a fat man who is bewildered by his surroundings.

How long does Zunzi think he can get away with his style of work? "It depends entirely on the political situation", he says. "We can see that the situation is becoming worse in the field of freedom of speech. A lot of newspapers are changing their attitude towards China. More and more newspapers are reluctant to use political cartoons".

So, will he tone down his cartoons? "I don't think it's necessary to use cartoons as a means of earning a living", he says. "If I can't publish in the newspapers, I won't squeeze myself by drawing things I don't like". He says he would be happy to switch to the Internet, or to producing banners for protesters. And if all these avenues are blocked and he lands in jail, Zunzi says: "I'll draw on the walls of the jail".

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