China Censors "Big Yellow Duck" on Tiananmen Square Anniversary

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 4 2013 12:09 PM

"Big Yellow Duck," "May 35th," and Other Words You Can't Use on China's Twitter Today

158991761
A gigantic, yellow rubber duck is floated under the Pyrmont Bridge into Sydney's Darling Harbour on January 5, 2013 to kick off Sydney's annual arts festival, a celebration which combines high-art with popular entertainment.

Photo by Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese authorities are working overtime to censor search phrases like "big yellow duck," "June 4" and even the simple search term "today" on Sina Weibo—aka China's Twitter—today. Why? Because those seemingly innocuous words all refer to the Tiananmen Square massacre, where the Chinese government brutally cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

Tuesday marks the 24th anniversary of the bloody demonstration, and though the Chinese Communist party has officially forbidden any open discussion of the "June 4 incident," Chinese citizens still haven't forgotten what day it is. Instead, they're taking to the Internet and using, as the Guardian ever-so-perfectly puts it, "ever-more oblique references to commemorate the tragedy, treating censors to an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse." And it turns out there are quite a few other banned phrases, too, as the Guardian notes:

Other banned words include "tomorrow," "that year," "special day," and many number combinations that could refer to 4 June 1989, such as 6-4, 64, 63+1, 65-1, and 35 (shorthand for May 35th).
Advertisement

(For those of you wondering about imaginary date May 35th:  In China, it's yet another way to reference June 4—showing that even seemingly "covert ways" of referencing Tiananmen Square are eventually discovered and effectively censored.)

Because so many phrases are being banned, Chinese netizens have instead begun cleverly creating Tiananmen-related images instead—with many creatively (and controversially) re-imagining the iconic "Tank Man" photo. One popular image recreated the entire scene with legos (it was quickly censored) while another replaced the tanks with big yellow ducks.

So what's the deal with the "big yellow duck?" The photoshopped image incorporates the 54-foot-tall duck by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman currently floating in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. It's a tongue-in-cheek, subversive image—and it was also quickly removed from the site. There's also another version of the “Tank Man” photo, based on Rovio’s “Angry Birds” video game by cartoonist Hexie Farm which is floating around. It, too, was censored.

It's clear that Sina Weibo is cracking down hard today — and we're not surprised at all. After all, it's rumored that there are 1,000 "information security" editors working to remove comments and posts about sensitive and forbidden subjects.

Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate. Slate Plus members, email her here.