Prominent Chinese cartoonist Wang Liming hopes to start a new life in Japan, saying he is afraid his safety will be threatened if he returns to his home country amid intensifying restrictions there on freedom of expression.
Wang, known as “Rebel Pepper,” has grown to prominence via social media networks since uploading sarcastic and critical works about Chinese politics in 2009. The 41-year-old has about 1 million followers on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo.
During a trip to Japan that began in May, his first time traveling outside China, Wang released caricatures expressing the courtesy of Japanese and other things that he felt about the country.
A website linked to the People’s Daily, China’s official mouthpiece, then posted a column criticizing Wang as a pro-Japan traitor on Aug. 18, and the column was picked up by several other Chinese websites within a few hours.
Wang was subsequently ousted from social media, with his Weibo account becoming inaccessible. He received a number of emails threatening death if he returned to China, and he eventually gave up on returning to China.
“I thought I’d be detained at the airport after my arrival and felt fear for my physical safety,” Wang said, adding that he was also worried about the safety of his wife, who was accompanying him.
Experts say Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration sees a threat in the freedom of speech that can be found in cyberspace. Shortly after his government’s launch in March 2013, Xi set up seven “bottom line” rules prohibiting criticism of socialism.
Authorities have been shutting down websites that cover social issues and detaining the bloggers who run them in an effort to control the opinions that are being expressed online.
Wang was no exception.
He has received a number of warnings about his cartoons and was detained and subjected to a midnight raid by authorities after he took up issues considered sensitive by China’s Communist Party, such as the Senkaku Islands dispute between Japan and China and pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
“Their way of taking away people’s freedom of expression and persecuting them for one-sided reasons suggest a return to the Cultural Revolution period” from 1966 to 1976, Wang said.
“I realized how wonderful freedom is while in Japan,” he said. “I wonder why (I have to be called) a traitor for conveying my thoughts on Japan. We’re not allowed even to make a joke about the government and bureaucrats. I’m pessimistic about the future of China.”
Wang has obtained a post as a researcher at a university in the Kanto region with the help of his supporters. He has begun studying Japanese and has been working on new cartoons.