Interviews

They couldn’t answer his cartoons, so they called him a traitor

Wang Liming, better known by his pen name Rebel Pepper, is a victim of the tightening of China’s political space under President Xi Jinping. After five years of cartooning and microblogging, he was targeted by a campaign that labelled him a traitor to the country. He is now in exile in the United States.

Wang’s first run-in with the authorities happened in 2011 after he posted a cartoon in support of the view, expressed in intellectual circles at the time, that non-members of the Communist Party should be allowed to contest in elections. His cartoon was widely circulated and was even printed on t-shirts.

The 2011 cartoon that earned Rebel Pepper his first appointment with the authorities.

Plainclothes officers from the national security department showed up at his family’s home and invited him to meet them at a tea shop for a chat. “I was scared,” he admits. But the warning did not work. Wang describes his urge to do cartoons as something he cannot control.

He continued to post cartoons and blogs highly critical of the party and its leadership. Several were taken down soon after he posted them, but were widely shared nonetheless.

An anglerfish, representing the Party, hypnotises smaller fish, representing the people, with the glowing image of a famous soldier.

In 2014, he visited Japan on a business trip. From there, he blogged about his positive impressions and criticised the Chinese government’s vilification of its neighbour. This transgressed one of the main red lines in Chinese censorship — Sino-Japanese relations. The government seized the opportunity for retribution.

Wang believes the authorities not directly attack the content of the cartoons that most upset them, because this would only focus more public attention on his messages. It was easier to label him as unpatriotic.

His social media accounts were deleted, and the party’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, ran an article labelling him a traitor. Other media followed suit.

Wang saw the writing on the wall and remained in Japan. He has since moved to the United States.

In 2016, a Chinese friend who wanted to visit him was threatened by the authorities. Wang cannot understand why they need to spend so much time and resources on him, but it’s clear to him where he stands in their eyes.

Being called a traitor was painful at first, he says. Now, he tries not to think about it.

He is based in Washington DC the first resident cartoonist of Radio Free Asia, enjoying the freedom to speak his mind through his cartoons. His wife is with him and they are expecting their second child.

Cherian George. This is an extract of an interview conducted in Washington DC, in October 2018 for a book project with Sonny Liew.