Culture Monster

All the Arts, All the Time

« Previous Post | Culture Monster Home | Next Post »

'Obamao' artwork tests limits of free speech in China

November 16, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Obamao Anyone who has been following President Obama's visit to China this week has no doubt heard of "Obamao" -- the graphic superimposition of Obama's face on the body of Chairman Mao that has found its way onto T-shirts and other souvenir items around the country.

The phenomenon, which was first reported during the summer, has reached a cultural tipping point this week, as Obama makes his way through the country as part of his first tour of Asia as president. Everyone -- NBC as well as  Gawker -- has weighed in on "Obamao." On Friday, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the Chinese government had gone so far as to ban the image by threatening to shut down vendors selling the popular T-shirts. Apparently, the government fears the image will offend the visiting president.

Culture Monster finds it is somewhat ironic that the Chinese government is cracking down on an image of Obama just as Obama himself publicly urged the country to embrace the freedom of speech. As reported this weekend in The Times, Obama spoke recently in Shanghai about "free expression, worship, political participation and access to information," which the president termed "universal rights."

"They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any nation," he said.

Obama also stated that unrestricted access to the Internet "should be encouraged."

His words apparently have fallen on deaf ears -- at least within the thick walls of the Chinese Communist party. Various reports today confirm that a CNN reporter was detained by Chinese security guards for displaying the "Obamao" T-shirt on camera. Emily Chang, who is a Beijing-based reporter for CNN, said  she and her crew were held for two hours, eventually meeting with Chinese police before being released.

So much for free speech in China. And so much for consistency too: The offending "Obamao" image  already has been widely reported on in state-run media, including the English-language China Daily.

Unlike with the Obama-as-Joker poster in the U.S., the designer of "Obamao" is well-known. Liu Mingjie created the digital image during the summer and has sold T-shirts and other items bearing his creation at his store in Beijing.

Liu told China Daily in September that he's working on "Obamao" underwear for the holiday season. We'll see how far he gets.

-- David Ng

Photo: A vendor sells "Obamao" merchandise. Credit: Zhou Chao / EPA

Related stories

Artist behind Obama-as-Joker poster revealed