Chinese Cartoons, Free Speech and Offence

Over the years, the exercise of free speech by cartoonists has been a recurring theme on this blog. All the way back in 2006 I discussed the infamous Mohammed cartoons published by Jyllands Postern, and of course the output of Charlie Hebdo has been examined and defended on several occasions. Meanwhile, the free speech of cartoonists around the world is often something that English PEN has to defend.

In the past few days, the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan, China has become an object of satirical cartoons. The Evening Standard published this image by Christian Adams:

As can be seen from the Tweet above, some people thought this image, showing a rat (it is now the Year of the Rat in China) was inappropriate.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government put out a press release complaining about cartoonist Niels Bo Bojesen’s image in the Jyllands Postern. The cartoon (top) redraws the flag of China with the coronavirus in place of the yellow stars. The government spokesperson said that while their country respects free speech, the cartoon was over the line.

I think that both these cartoons are appropriate and that this sort of thing should be encouraged.

First, disasters and terrible events are appropriate targets for satire. It’s often only when a disaster occurs that failings and hypocrisy are exposed. We might recall the Charlie Hebdo cartoon following the earthquake in Campania, Italy, which depicted victims as having been flattened ‘like lasagna.’ Offensive? Yes! But it also made a point about the inadequacy of Italy’s building codes, social housing… and the failing local government that should have provided something safer. Making that point is a public service.

The same goes for the Chinese coronavirus. China does not have an unblemished record when it comes to fighting deadly diseases. It’s handling of the latest outbreak seems to be better than the SARS scandal of 2003, when the Chinese authorities failed to co-operate with international experts and tried in vain to cover up the whole thing. But even with the current outbreak, it seems that China’s secrecy, censorship and lack of accountability has unnecessarily contributed to the spread. This should make them the target of criticism and satire.

Even if that means causing offence. Back in 2016, while discussing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon that depicted the drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi, I wrote this:

Sometimes, it is only the art that offends that can break through the political blather. It is not simply that offensive art needs to be tolerated. Sometimes it also needs to be encouraged.

Mocking symbols of the state, such as its flag and its cultural iconography, are a good way to crash into people’s awareness and make the point.

The spokesman for the Chinese government suggested that the Jyllands Postern “crossed a line.” A line of taste maybe, but not of freedom of expression. If you define free speech as only acceptable within narrow limits, then that is not really free speech at all. Traditional symbols cannot be off limits, and nor should we avoid performing satire during a human crisis. As we see in China right now, that might be when it is most needed.

In this video, The Nerdwriter discusses the effect and the intent of offensive jokes, and the need to let stand-up comedians be ‘moral detectives’ who explore the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. I think that licence is usually extended to cartoonists, too.

(Yes, I’m aware that Louis CK was accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct in 2017. This video was made before those allegations became public, and discusses the nature of ‘offensive’ comedy in general, with Louis CK as an emblematic example).