Censorship, Creative Resistance and Giant Ducks Mark Tiananmen Square Anniversary

Includes video

Yellow-rubber-duck-008

Tanks are replaced by giant ducks in this photoshopped version of the iconic Tiananmen Square image. It was posted on a popular Chinese microblog before being removed by censors.


It’s probably the first time that any government has ever censored the term “Big Yellow Duck”.

But if you search for it (in Chinese) on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog, a message tells you that results can’t be shown “according to relevant laws, statutes and policies.”

“Today”, “Tonight”,   “June 4″, and “Anniversary” are also among the many blocked words and terms on the Twitter-like site, which has more than half a billion registered users in China (Twitter is blocked there).

So what gives?

Turns out it’s a result of very clever photoshopping in the face of government censorship. On this day, 24 years ago (1989), the Chinese military killed hundreds, and possibly thousands (the actual number has never been released), of unarmed pro-democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Ordered by the nation’s hardline leaders to suppress the demonstration, troops entered with tanks and assault rifles, killing protestors attempting to block their advance.

While China has changed dramatically since then, its government is still not democratically elected, nor is there freedom of speech. Controversial issues are commonly censored in print and on the internet. And as this tragedy doesn’t exactly cast the Chinese government in the kindest light, it makes some sense that they’d try to wipe out – or rewrite – as much information about it as possible. In fact, Chinese history textbooks are notorious for skipping over the incident (among various others).

That explains the ban on searches for things like “today” and “June 4.” But what about “Big Yellow Duck”?

AP tank man Tiananmen Square

Jeff Widener/The Associated Press

Chinese censors banned the term after the above image began circulating on the social media site. A demonstration of witty photo manipulation, the altered image evokes an iconic photograph – known as “Tank Man” – of the 1989 protest. The original image, taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener, captures a young man standing in front of four tanks. (See original video footage below.)

Because the real photo is, of course, nowhere to be found on China’s internet, someone replaced the  four tanks with giant yellow ducks and posted that instead. The meme is actually a play on a 54-foot-tall duck sculpture, created by a Dutch artist, that currently floats in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor.

When the government censors got wind of this joke, they apparently failed to see the humor, and the term “big yellow duck” got the axe as well.

In today’s Global Times, China’s English-language daily, an article title Web regulation in public’s best interest” stated:

“Some claim that any regulation of the Internet is an anti-democratic effort. This deceptive voice has gained support from Western public opinion, which makes China’s regulation of the Internet encounter more resistance than in other countries.

China’s mainstream society needs to form a firm consensus that such regulation is necessary for Chinese society.”

Throughout the day, other clever incarnations of the original image also began popping up on the social media site, including this Lego. re-creation.

Lego tanks

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