Meet the artist behind Enes Kanter's anti-Beijing shoes

Meet the artist behind Enes Kanter's anti-Beijing shoes
© Courtesy: Badiucao

The Chinese dissident artist Badiucao knew he was taking on a large canvas in painting human rights slogans on the basketball shoes for Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter.

But he didn’t realize how big those shoes would be, a men’s size 16 — nearly 12 and a half inches long.

“I was given a very tight schedule to finish this art… When I did receive the shoe, it was so big I feel, I almost cannot finish it,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “It’s bigger than I expected.”

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Badiucao is one of a number of artists who are producing protest shoes for the Swiss-born, Turkish basketball player. Badiucao's work is part of a campaign to raise awareness of human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party. The slogans he painted on three pairs of sneakers include  "End Slave Labor Now" and "Free Tibet." 

Kanter has worn the shoes on the court — leading to Celtic’s games reportedly censored in China – and promoted them on his social media. On Monday, he posted a video to Twitter accusing Nike of being complicit in China’s genocide against the Uyghur Muslim community.

Nike has previously said it conducts strict oversight of its manufacturing in China to ensure its not contributing to Beijing’s state-sponsored oppression against the Uyghurs.

In January, the State Department determined that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs and other minority groups, particularly in the country’s Xinjiang province.

Kanter’s profile in the NBA and his outspoken advocacy for human rights, specifically related to his home country Turkey, has made him a celebrity for oppressed groups, a partner for lawmakers and a target of foreign governments.

“Enes Kanter has this idea that human rights is a universal value, which means that we need to support each other,” said Badiucao, who was born in Shanghai but lives in exile in Australia, where he is a citizen.

The artist is a high-profile target of the Chinese government for his satirical political art. Some of his most notable pieces include depicting Winnie the Pooh as a gun turret on a tank or a hunting trophy mounted on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wall.

The affable children’s stuffed-bear was censored in China after it gained popularity as a way to mock Xi.

“I think satire art has this very interesting power,” Badiucao said in a phone interview from Brescia, Italy, where his upcoming exhibit has come under attack from the Chinese government, who have called for Italian officials to cancel the show.

“We’re trying to laugh at authoritarian regimes like China, and make fun of it. That’s why Winnie the Pooh – the lovely little yellow bear – serves perfectly to dissolve this power from the Chinese government."

Badiucao said he was introduced to Kanter through a mutual friend and brought together for the shoe project. He said the shoe manufacturer they used is not associated with China but declined to name the brand.

The shoes that have so far been revealed include stark white basketball sneakers with what resembles splatters of blood along with black letters reading “Hypocrite Nike” and “Modern Day Slave.”

Other shoes include paintings of handcuffed and blindfolded men, representing Uyghurs, covered with red-barbed wire. “Stop genocide, torture, rape, slave labor,” the shoes read.

Badiucao said his collaboration with Kanter is focused on calling out Western companies that may be benefiting from China’s oppression of the Uyghurs.

“We are in every right to point out how hypocritical those brands, factories and companies that — on one hand, they are trying to sell more sneakers, by fakely chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’ but on the other hand, the same issue, racism, it’s even worse, it’s genocide happening in China against minorities there, and they become silent,” he said. “That’s something that’s unacceptable.”

Kanter has put Nike, and Nike-sponsored basketball superstars LeBron James and Michael Jordan, in his crosshairs — drawing a stark contrast for their support for social justice and anti-hate movements in the U.S. but apparent silence on human rights in China.

“How about I book plane tickets for us and let's fly to China together,” Kanter tweeted on Tuesday tagging Nike, James and Jordan. “We can try to visit these SLAVE labor camps and you can see it with your own eyes.”

Nike has earlier said it ensures no slave labor is used in its Chinese-manufacturing supply chain, responding to a report published in March that said factories contracted by the shoe company were employing Uyghurs that appeared to be working under coercive conditions.

Badiucao said he grew up in China inspired by Jordan – “I remember my cousin and myself so obsessed with the man who can fly in the sky, that makes us believe that we can fly as well” – and believes athletes have a powerful platform to speak out on politics.

“I do think that athletes... have a much more important role than just being a showman on TV, or playing on the court, they actually inspire people in real life,” he said.

The NBA’s relationship with China is a lightning rod for controversy, where billions of dollars of multilayered deals between the league, athletes, commercial brands and the Chinese state are caught up in the debate over freedom of speech and preservation of human rights.

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In 2019, Daryl Morey — then the manager for the Houston Rockets — sparked backlash from Beijing when he tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, leading to NBA games either blocked or censored from Chinese broadcasters.

The league is also under scrutiny from congressional lawmakers, raising concern that athletes are contracting with Chinese companies that may include Uyghur-forced labor in their supply chains.

“Complicity in forced labor is neither consistent with American values nor with U.S. law. NBA players serve as unofficial ambassadors admired and emulated around the world, and we hope that their decisions on endorsements will reflect the NBPA’s values,” the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers charged with monitoring the status of human rights and the rule of law in China, wrote to the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) on Oct. 19.

The NBPA did not respond to a request for comment by The Hill.

Kanter declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he wants to keep the focus on the conversation about human rights.

But the basketball player did say he is putting his support behind the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, proposed legislation that would put strict limitations and oversight on imports from areas of China documented to be oppressing minorities like the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz minorities.

The legislation passed the Senate in July with bipartisan support but has yet to be taken up by the House. The New York Times reported in November 2020 that companies like Nike and Coca-Cola were lobbying to weaken the bill — charges the companies refute.

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Martina McLennan, a spokesperson for Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Lawmakers call on Olympic committee to press China on human rights abuses Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE (D-Ore.), chair of the CECC, said the senator has met with Kanter on human rights issues and “greatly appreciates him using his platform to draw attention to the dire human rights abuses Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other minorities in China are facing."

Badiucao said engaging athletes in conversations around human rights in China is even more pressing given the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in February in Beijing.

The CECC have called on the International Olympic Committee to postpone and move the Winter Olympics if Beijing does not stop its campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Badiucao said that athletes should be empowered to speak out if they feel comfortable doing so, but added the majority of the responsibility should be on companies and corporate sponsors of the Olympics.

“They should make a very clear statement to justify their sponsor of Olympic games like this, which is hosted by a dictatorship who is committing genocide against people in this moment,” he said.

On Saturday, Kanter tweeted a photo of a new pair of sneakers painted by Tibetan-American artist Khenzom Alling. The sneakers display a clear message: "No Beijing 2022."