Australian billboard companies refuse to run artworks critical of Beijing Olympics due to fear of backlash from China
Chinese Australian artist Badiucao and Australian activist Drew Pavlou are trying to display a series of artwork critical of the 2022 Beijing Olympics in Brisbane. However, local billboard companies retracted an original agreement due to fear of backlash and potential cyberattack from Beijing.
According to Badiucao, the series of artwork focus on combining the human rights violations that the Chinese government has committed over the last few years and some sports competitions that will be featured during the 2022 Beijing Olympics. He hopes to raise people’s awareness about the Chinese government’s human rights record.
Pavlou began to focus on human rights issues in China after he organized a protest on the campus of the University of Queensland in support of the anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong. He was later suspended by the university for two years. Pavlou is now preparing to run for a seat in the Senate in Australia’s next federal election.
According to him, he wants to include messages critical of the Chinese government on the billboard, so he reached out to Badiucao and suggested that they can display his artwork critical of the Beijing Olympics on billboards in Brisbane. With the hope to share voices from the Chinese Australians, Badiucao agreed to the proposal.
“I agreed to put the artworks on billboards in Brisbane because it’s not just about me supporting a politician who cares about human rights and it’s not just about this body of work,” he said.
“It’s also about the Olympic game itself. Brisbane has been chosen to hold the Olympics in 2032, so it will be very meaningful to put this work in Brisbane and to make people pay attention to the Chinese government’s human rights record,” he said.
Pavlou describes Badiucao as a leading figure when it comes to artists testing the limits of freedom of expression against the Chinese government. Since he hopes to share similar ideologies through her campaign, he decides to collaborate with Badiucao.
“All billboard companies in Australia won’t display anti-China messages”
However, Badiucao said over the weekend, Pavlou informed him that the billboard company that originally agreed to work with them suddenly withdrew from the deal, claiming that since they get supplies for the billboards from China, they are concerned that displaying “anti-China” artworks will make them become the target of Beijing’s retribution.
“The company said it would cost them more money than the amount that we can pay them,” he said. “Secondly, the company’s representative expressed concern over cybersecurity. He was worried that if the Chinese government found out that his company is running this body of artwork, they could be targeted by cyber-harassment or cyberattack.”
On December 14, Pavlou shared two audio recordings of his conversation with the representative from the billboard company. During the conversation, the representative told Pavlou that even if he and Badiucao’s budget is $100,000 Australian dollars rather than $3000 dollars, it is still not worth the risk for the billboard company to display the artworks.
“Ultimately, the managing directors of GOA has contacted the CEO of Bishopp Outdoor Advertising and he said ‘hey I’m really concerned for our industry if we run this anti-China messaging,’” he said.
“I mean, these guys go to China. They go to these factories to purchase their additional billboards and stuff. So, if this makes its way through social media or whatever avenue, back to China, the risk associated with it is just not worth it for us,” he added.
The representative told Pavlou that he worried that if the Chinese government or pro-Beijing individuals are unhappy about their company displaying Badiucao’s artworks, their company could even experience a cyberattack. When Pavlou asked him if this means they couldn’t display any content that is critical of the Chinese Communist Party on billboards in Brisbane, the representative said “In the end, correct. You won’t be able to.”
“You can mark my words there. You won’t be able to book any billboards with any company in Australia with anti-Chinese messaging. I asked our managing director what about anti-winter Olympics content, and he said ‘neh, absolutely not,’” he added.
Concerns about overseas power potentially influencing Australian election
After the representative labeled his artwork as “anti-China,” Badiucao disputes the idea and emphasizes that rather than being purely anti-China, his artworks are highlighting the crime or the problem of the Chinese government instead of spreading anti-China information.
However, he also thinks that the billboard company’s understanding reflects that there are still people who can’t clearly distinguish anti-China from the anti-Chinese government in Australia. “This is how the Chinese government’s narrative works in a way,” he said. “It cancels any criticism against the Chinese government by saying it as ‘anti-China’ or a discrimination against Chinese.”
Badiucao thinks that Australians shouldn’t just care about the short-term profit or loss, but rather, they should pay attention to the fact that a healthy development of business requires a safe and free-market environment.
“Take a look at Chinese businessmen like Jack Ma and other successful people who think they have achieved the impossible and accumulated huge wealth from the so-called miracle of China but in the end, no matter how successful you are, money in China can’t buy safety and freedom,” he said. “That’s the risk that any business who tries to make money in China has to face.”
Drew Pavlou describes the incident as proof that Australia has come to a dire point in terms of “CCP interference,” because potentially, all billboard companies in Australia could refuse to run any content that is critical of the Chinese government during the election campaign.
“If the Chinese government has the final say over what goes up on billboards in Australia during an election, I think we have come to a very bad point in this country,” he said.
Sophie McNeil, Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that it is shocking to see the stifling of freedom of expression in Australia like this. Sascha-Dominik Dov Bachmann, a professor at the University of Canberra, also wrote on Twitter that if the content of the audio recording is confirmed, the incident is a shocking example of “foreign malign influence” on Australian elections.
This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.