China detains artist who posted humorous photo of president

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Originally published by USA Today on May 28, 2015

BEIJING (AP) — Authorities have detained an obscure Chinese artist after he posted online a humorous portrait of President Xi Jinping, his wife said Thursday.

Judy Zhu said police accused her husband, Dai Jianyong, of “creating a disturbance” after detaining him Tuesday near their Shanghai home.

Dai is known for posting eclectic photos on social media, including some showing himself and others scrunching up their lips and eyes. Dai posted images of Xi with the same expression while wearing a mustache.

Some online commentators have compared the Xi portrait to Adolf Hitler, although Dai’s Instagram image has much broader mustache than the small, square-shaped, “toothbrush mustache” associated with Hitler and Charlie Chaplin. Dai faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Shanghai police didn’t answer phone calls Thursday.

Chinese artists have long walked a fine line between what they can express without getting into trouble with authorities. Posting politically sensitive work online has become one clear red line, especially under Xi’s more hard-line rule.

“In general, the space for civil society to make their opinion public has become much harder under Xi Jinping, and that’s also true of artists,” said Frances Eve, a researcher with the activist group Chinese Human Rights Defenders
. “The government’s always made it a little unclear, but people who used to work as artists felt like they hadn’t crossed the lines. Now, people have been detained and have crossed that line they didn’t know was there.”

The clampdown has also ensnared citizen activists who have posted eyewitness video and other information deemed embarrassing to authorities, including activist Wu Gan who was formally detained on Wednesday after drawing attention to government land seizures and alleged police brutality.

Zhu said Dai previously created collages of former Chinese President Hu Jintaocovered with the heads of random people, but had not received warning that anyone in government was paying attention. She said about a dozen police were waiting for the couple when they returned home Tuesday.

“It was just a playful thing he did,” she said. “I don’t think there was that much political intent behind it.”

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