UPDATE: The rubber duck meme was NOT censored this year (only in 2013). Even the most subversive memes, it turns out, have limited shelf life.

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

It’s safe to say it was the first time the term “Big Yellow Duck” had ever been censored.

But had you searched for it (in Chinese) on June 4 last year on Sina Weibo, China’s biggest microblog site, a message would tell you it couldn’t be shown “according to relevant laws, statutes and policies.”

So what gives?

Turns out it’s a result of clever photoshopping in the shadow of government censorship. June 4, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when the Chinese military broke up a 6-week student pro-democracy rally, killing anywhere from 400 to more than 1,000 unarmed protesters (the actual number has never been released). Ordered by the nation’s hardline leaders to suppress the demonstration, troops entered the square with tanks and assault rifles, killing hordes of students who refused to move.

Although China has undergone dramatic economic changes in the years since, its communist government remains authoritarian in practice, and officials are quick to crack down on dissent, limiting freedom of speech and other basic civil liberties.

Television, film and print media have long been under the government’s strict control. And while the internet presents greater censorship challenges, authorities have acted aggressively to limit access to search engines like Google, and filter content deemed subversive.

Controversial issues are commonly censored in print and on the internet. And as memory of this tragedy doesn’t exactly cast the Chinese government in the most positive light, it’s hardly surprising that they’d try to wipe out – or rewrite – as much information on it as possible. In fact, Chinese history textbooks are notorious for skipping over this and other incidents.

In the lead up to the anniversary of the event, Chinese journalists whom the government considers subversive have also been known to temporarily “disappear.”

It’s like George Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel  “1984” (which is also widely censored):

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

“Today”, “Tonight”,  “June 4”, and “Anniversary” are among the many blocked words and terms on Weibo, the Twitter-esque site, which has more than half a billion registered users in China.This year, more obscure workarounds, like  “May 35” and  “63 plus 1” have also popped up and been subsequently blacklisted.

But what about “Big Yellow Duck”?

Chinese censors banned the term after the above image went viral on the social media site. The clever meme reinvents the iconic “Tank Man” image from the 1989 protest. The original, by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener, shows a young man standing in front of four tanks in the square (see original video footage below).

Because the real photo is, not surprisingly, nowhere to be found on China’s internet, someone last year created the duck image in its place. And when government censors got wind of it, they apparently failed to see the humor, quickly adding “Big yellow duck” to the long and growing list of forbidden searches.

Roughly a third of today’s population in China were born after the 1989 protests, and many older Chinese, fearing government retaliation, are hesitant to mention it. That leaves a huge chunk of the population — upwards of 400 million young people — largely unaware of a pivotal event in China’s modern history.

“The education system and the vast apparatus that censors the Chinese media and Internet have done such a formidable job at eliminating references to the events of 1989 that many young people are unaware of what happened or have only a faint notion of what happened,” Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of Danwei, a Beijing-based firm that tracks Chinese media, told Agence France-Presse .

“The result is that many young people who do not remember 1989 themselves would need an unusual degree of curiosity to look for information about what happened.”

The below excerpt from an article titled Web regulation in public’s best interest,” was published last year in the Global Times, China’s English-language daily, as justification for such oversight:

“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.”

But despite the government’s ongoing efforts to erase history, other clever references to the event, and re-imaginings of the original image, popped up on the site throughout the day — both last year and this year. Here are a few:

Lego tankso-COW-WEIBO-570



Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @Matthewkqed

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