Ducks not tanks, says Yu, creator of Weibo's banned June 4th meme

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Each year, as June 4 approaches, Chinese netizens get creative. Their purpose? To commemorate the Tiananmen protests in ways that can be understood by all but go undetected by the censors. This year, one image briefly made it across the firewall – that is, until even a friendly rubber duck fell victim to the netizens’ fight for remembrance.

“The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people and doesn't have a political connotation,” Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s wrote on his website about his 16.5-metre tall sculpture floating in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. “The rubber duck is soft, friendly and suitable for all ages!”

Hofman’s originally apolitical artwork took China by storm in the past month. In countless Chinese cities such as Wuhan, Xi’an and Hangzhou copycat versions even popped up –a truly Chinese barometer of success.

“Ducks, not tanks”
But June 3, Hong Kong designer Michael Miller Yu posted a pic on his Facebook page that placed the friendly fowl in a whole new – and politically sensitive – context. In a clever montage of the iconic Tank Man photo, he swapped the tanks for rubber ducks, and replaced, in his own words, “violence with tenderness”. Chinese netizens immediately reposted it on Weibo, and the image was set to go viral.

According to FreeWeibo, which keeps a record of censored Weibo messages, the image was “very popular”. Yet Weibo swiftly brought the duck march to a halt. So this year, not only were the terms “Tiananmen” and “June 4th” blocked on Weibo, but also the ominous phrase “big yellow duck”.

The censorship on Weibo doesn’t surprise Miller Yu. “I already expected the blockage,” he admits, speaking to RNW on the phone from his Hong Kong studio. “Anything related to the Tiananmen Square is quite sensitive.”

But Miller Yu doesn’t consider himself a provocateur. “I don’t want us to forget the Tiananmen incidents, but I do want us to look towards the future,” he states. “What we want is not violence and oppression from the government. We want happiness.”

And apparently, the rubber duck represents just that to Miller Yu. “This Rubber Duck has traveled to more than 12 countries, bringing love and joy to people,” he notes, referring to Hofman’s sculpture.

Miller Yu also considers his image a visual pun, because the English word “duck” sounds like the Chinese word “de”, which means “virtue” or “good morals”.

“That's why the headline of my poster is: We want ducks, not tanks,” the designer says.

“A yellow catalyst”
Rotterdam-based Hofman, unaccustomed to the Chinese censors, was taken aback by the news of the rubber duck ban. He had seen Miller Yu’s image on his Facebook timeline, but didn’t understand its meaning or sensitive nature. “I do know the photo with the tanks, but I didn’t recognize it, because, well, the tanks were replaced by ducks,” he comments by phone.

Asked to comment on the censorship, Hofman mulls it over for a while. “It’s a pity. Or maybe it’s not,” he says. “It’s really weird, because my rubber duck has such a positive connotation, and now the words themselves have become politically charged and censored.”

Still, Hofman has always considered his artwork a “a yellow catalyst” that trigger societal response. Just as the copycat rubber ducks spurred a debate on copyright infringement, Miller Yu’s photoshopped image and subsequent block on Weibo has called attention to censorship in China, Hofman reasons.

So is it perhaps an idea to send the Rubber Duck to other Chinese cities? Hofman hopes to extend his sculpture’s Chinese tour; he is flying to Hong Kong on Thursday for negotiations.

Update: on 5 June, the phrase “big yellow duck” was unblocked again on Weibo. None of the new related posts feature Michael’s photo montage.