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Friday 13 May 2022

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A portrait that mashes Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed in the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague on May 12. Molotov cocktails in soy sauce bottles are on the floor.

PRAGUE -- As Michaela Silpochova, curator at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague, was putting the final touches on the opening of an exhibit from Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, she received a phone call from a number she didn't recognize.

Speaking in broken Czech on a publicly unavailable number, a woman who identified herself only as "Hong" told Silpochova that hosting Badiucao's art, which was set to premiere the next day on May 12, could damage relations between China and the Czech Republic and that she "hoped the exhibition will not take place."

After repeated requests to identify herself, the woman said she was affiliated with the Chinese Embassy. The unlisted landline the call was made from connects to the embassy's Cultural Department.

"It wasn't exactly a threat, it was more of a warning or something meant to [imply] that there could be some consequences for organizing the show," Silpochova told RFE/RL.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told the Czech outlet Aktualne on May 13 that he also received a call from the Chinese Embassy in advance of the show saying that it could affect relations between Prague and Beijing.

The embassy did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment, but Chinese officials have a growing track record of attempting to extend the country's harsh censorship abroad in recent years, with Badiucao's political art becoming an increasingly frequent target.

Badiucao speaks at the opening of his exhibit at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague on May 12.
Badiucao speaks at the opening of his exhibit at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague on May 12.

In November, Chinese officials made unsuccessful requests -- and even threats -- to the hosting gallery in Brescia, Italy, in an attempt to cancel his art show, which contained many provocative works touching on topics that are taboo or even illegal inside China, such as a hybrid portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Similarly, a guerilla art campaign taking aim at China's hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics led to controversy at George Washington University in Washington when a student group affiliated with the Chinese Embassy tried to have posters of Badiucao's art removed from campus.

"We knew what happened in Italy in 2021. So, when I heard that someone from the Chinese Embassy was calling, I was not surprised," Silpochova said. "At the same time, we thought that they might have learned their lesson in terms of the negative publicity that doing this [can cause]. [But there are probably procedures] to be followed on their side."

A New Target

The exhibit in Prague is only the second international show for Badiucao, the pseudonym used by the 35-year-old artist who is now based in Australia, and the display builds off his previous work by taking aim at a new target: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.

Censorship and the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party have been consistent themes of Badiucao's art, and the Prague exhibit opens with familiar topics such as the brutal Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Beijing's internment-camp system in its western Xinjiang Province, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and the compliance of Western companies in enabling Chinese censorship and repression.

Installations by Badiucao criticize Western tech companies for furthering Chinese censorship and repression at his exhibit in Prague.
Installations by Badiucao criticize Western tech companies for furthering Chinese censorship and repression at his exhibit in Prague.

But the later part of the show focuses on the Ukraine war and Xi's support for Putin, from providing political cover to creating an international and domestic propaganda effort to boost the Kremlin's skewed narrative of the conflict.

"As a Chinese person, I was very sad to see the Chinese government supporting Putin and supporting his crimes against humanity in Ukraine since the very beginning," Badiucao told RFE/RL.

Among some notable pieces commenting on the ongoing war are a painting titled Little Man's Rage that features Putin exposing himself in a trench coat with a nuclear warhead in place of his genitals and another artwork that features a nurturing Xi breastfeeding an infant Putin.

"This is what I wanted to highlight: Not only the bravery of the Ukrainian people, but also the very fact that Xi Jinping is nursing Putin and giving him a lifeline to continue this war," Badiucao said.

Badiucao used to only appear with his art wearing a mask, fearful of the risks and blowback from Chinese authorities to him and his family, but he revealed his face in 2019 and has since taken on a more public role as both an artist and an activist.

A major theme of the show in Prague is dictators and subverting their authority in unexpected ways. The exhibit concludes with a massive portrait that blends the faces of Xi and Putin into one with the floor in front of the painting littered with Molotov cocktails in soy-sauce bottles.

Baiducao says he wanted to give a nod to what has become a tool of protesters and resistance in Ukraine and in Hong Kong during 2019 protests, showing not only the commonalities between their authoritarian systems but also the people power that continues to push back.

"There will be a victory in the end, but it will be from the hands of ordinary people," he said.

China has ramped up its rhetoric to warn about NATO and the United States' footprint in Asia.

China increasingly sees the war in Ukraine -- and the roles of the United States and its NATO allies in backing Kyiv against Moscow -- as a reflection of future tensions to come between the military bloc and Beijing in the Indo-Pacific.

Ever since Russian tanks first crossed into Ukraine on February 24, Beijing has walked an awkward line between not giving outright support to Moscow's invasion while accusing the United States and other NATO countries of provoking the war by allowing the security alliance to expand eastward despite protests from the Kremlin.

Now, as the war continues to grind on with the Russian military suffering major setbacks on the battlefield, China has ramped up its rhetoric to warn about NATO and the United States' footprint in Asia.

"NATO, a military organization in the North Atlantic, has in recent years come to the Asia-Pacific region to throw its weight around and stir up conflicts," Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in late April. "NATO has messed up Europe. Is it now trying to mess up the Asia-Pacific and even the world?"

Wang's comments were in response to earlier remarks from U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who called for boosting NATO in the wake of the Ukraine war and warned China that it should "play by the rules."

The added focus on NATO from Beijing comes as both China and the United States see Russia's invasion as a foil for future tensions between the two countries in Asia. NATO said last year that it intended to focus more on China and Beijing is expected to play a large role in the bloc's strategy moving forward.

Likewise, Washington is increasingly convinced that the conflict provides it with an unexpected advantage in the long term, with Bloomberg reporting on May 10 that U.S. officials believe that bolstered European defense spending and a weakened Russia could allow it to accelerate a security shift toward China.

Those aims are part of the shared distrust toward NATO and the United States that has led Beijing and Moscow to become closer in recent years and why many analysts believe that China has not abandoned Russia throughout its brutal war in Ukraine.

Similarly, experts and Western officials warn that Beijing is closely watching the response to Russia's invasion and drawing potential lessons for any tensions over Taiwan, which China claims as its territory and has threatened to invade if Taipei refuses to submit to its control.

"If China joins the West in condemning Russia, it will be much applauded in Washington and most European capitals. But it will lose Russia's partnership," Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, a retired officer of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), wrote in The Economist on May 9. "And it is only a matter of time before America takes on China again. The Biden administration's policy towards my country is 'extreme competition' that stops just short of war."

Ukraine War As a 'Mirror'

The parallels drawn between U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific and NATO's expansion in Europe are not new, with both China and Russia underlining this point in the 5,000-word joint statement they released in February when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin declared a "no-limits" partnership.

The document voiced their opposition to the "further enlargement of NATO" and pledged to "remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States' Indo-Pacific strategy."

A giant screen broadcasts news footage of a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a shopping mall in Beijing in December 2021.
A giant screen broadcasts news footage of a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a shopping mall in Beijing in December 2021.

Despite Chinese protests, experts point out there are key differences between NATO's role and U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, which also includes a wider range of economic and political policies beyond the bloc and the United States dealing with its long Pacific Ocean border.

Still, the Ukraine war is set to affect the region, with Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng saying in March that the crisis could be used as a "mirror" to view the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region.

For the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, the move toward Asia is seen as critical and long overdue.

Washington has increasingly warned about China abusing its military and economic clout in the region, pointing to the country's moves to exert greater control over Hong Kong, expand its military presence in the South China Sea, and crack down on human rights in Xinjiang Province, which has seen more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities interned in camps.

But while both U.S. and Chinese officials see parallels between the Ukraine war and rising tensions in Asia, they are each drawing different lessons.

U.S. officials continue to view increased defense spending in Europe, as well as both Finland and Sweden on an immediate path toward NATO membership, as positive security developments that could allow the United States to follow through on its long-delayed "pivot to Asia." That policy was first outlined by U.S. President Barack Obama and the move is seen as necessary as U.S. policy circles increasingly view China, not Russia, as the country's main military adversary.

A Taiwanese flag is carried by a Chinook helicopter during a rehearsal for the upcoming National Day celebration in Taipei in October 2021.
A Taiwanese flag is carried by a Chinook helicopter during a rehearsal for the upcoming National Day celebration in Taipei in October 2021.

Chinese officials and experts, however, are reaching different conclusions from the reflections they see in Ukraine.

Beijing -- and Xi in particular -- has long supported "strategic autonomy," a concept pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron that calls for Europe to play a more independent role in its defense that relies less on the United States.

In a May 10 call with Macron, Xi pushed the French president and other European leaders to take security "into their own hands," echoing earlier comments from a May 9 call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

While the long-term implications of the Ukraine war are still uncertain, as is the future of European "strategic autonomy," Beijing increasingly seems to believe that it could further delay the U.S. strategic pivot to China and lead to a lasting division among European and NATO allies.

"Joe Biden had hoped to put Russia policy on a 'stable and predictable' footing in order to focus on America's Indo-Pacific strategy. The war in Ukraine undoubtedly will distract America's attention and [siphon] away resources," wrote Zhou, the retired PLA officer. "The question is...how long Mr. Biden will allow Ukraine to remain a distraction."

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