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Popularity carries a sting for China's exiled 'Rebel Pepper' cartoonist

Satirist Wang Liming had close to a million social-media followers in China until he drew President Xi Jinping as a steamed bun. Now he's under threat at home and exiled in Japan. 

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    In this 2013 photo, a man sells a newspaper from a newsstand in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China.
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A prominent Chinese satirical cartoonist, stranded in Japan by threats to his safety at home, has launched a public appeal for financial help, saying he is destitute.

Wang Liming, who draws under the nickname Rebel Pepper, says he fears persecution in China, following a vitriolic attack on him on the website of the ruling Communist Party’s official organ, the People’s Daily.

As the Chinese government continues its crackdown on critics of all stripes, “I am afraid it would be dangerous to return home,” Mr. Wang says in an interview. “I’m worried that I would be arrested.”

With his savings exhausted, though, Wang asked for money from his supporters earlier this month in a Twitter post. He wrote that “though I feel ashamed, I have to swallow my pride. I hope everyone can help me out.”

Wang, whose sharply drawn cartoons making fun of Chinese leaders had won him over half a million followers on Tencent's social media platform, first realized he was in trouble last July, during a visit to Japan, when Tencent shut his account without warning or explanation. Sina Weibo, another platform where he had 340,000 followers, took the same action on the same day.

A week later, Taobao, the giant online shopping platform through which Wang earned his living by selling Japanese goods to Chinese customers, suddenly closed “Rebel Pepper’s Little Shop.”

“I think Alibaba (the company that owns Taobao) was following orders from someone,” says Wang. Neither Sina, nor Tencent nor Alibaba responded to requests for explanations of why they had closed Wang’s accounts. 

Shortly afterwards, an article appeared in an online forum hosted by People’s Daily accusing Rebel Pepper of treason for posting “pro-Japanese remarks” on his social media accounts and urging that he “should be dealt with…according to the law. He should not be allowed to say whatever he wants to confuse people.”

The article, signed by Zhang Yan, apparently a pseudonym, was quickly re-posted on a number of government-owned websites.

“They published this to intimidate me,” says Wang. “This was a very clear signal from the government that if I went back I would have no online shop…no way to make a living, no freedom to work and that I would be punished.”

Steaming mad

He says he believes the accusations of pro-Japanese sentiment were an excuse, and that the Chinese authorities are angry with him over a cartoon he drew last December depicting President Xi Jinping as a steamed bun.

Chinese internet controllers have closed the accounts of a number of well known bloggers in the past two years, and obliged social media platform operators to censor posts more harshly. A 2013 regulation threatens jail terms for bloggers who post “rumors” that are read more than 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times.

Wang says that the Japanese authorities have not allowed him or his wife to apply for political asylum. The couple has been granted “cultural exchange” visas valid until the end of this year, and Wang has been given the status of visiting scholar by Saitama University, north of Tokyo.

The university provides Wang and his wife with a cheap apartment and free Japanese classes, but no stipend, Wang says.

He has been scraping by over the past nine months by giving the occasional paid lecture, selling the occasional cartoon to Japanese magazines and drawing down his savings, he explains. But that “is not enough for two people to live on.”

He said in his public appeal that he was “so ashamed” to ask his supporters for money, but that “there are really no better solutions.”

At the moment, Wang says, he “cannot see the future.” But he has started drawing a narrative comic strip about China’s recent history, starting with the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. “If the government says I am an enemy of the state I will say whatever I want to say,” he declares. “I have nothing to lose any more.” 

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