China's Ruling Party Continues To Censor Memories Of Tiananmen Protests

The Chinese government is trying to suppress any online discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on their 24th anniversary. This has prompted some people to attempt to distribute photos reminding people of the event. One image being censored refers to the iconic photo of a man standing before an advancing column of tanks, in the censored image, however, he stands before a column of rubber ducks.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Among the words blocked by government censors today on Chinese social media sites: Today, Tonight, June 4. Oh, and big yellow duck. Now, if that sounds absurd, keep in mind that today, June 4, is the anniversary of Tiananmen Square when the Chinese army crushed democracy demonstrations in 1989. One of the most indelible images of that event shows one activist facing off against a line of huge tanks.

And here's where that big yellow duck comes in, along with our own Frank Langfitt who joins us now from Shanghai. And Frank, to start, how does the duck connect to all of this?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Here's the story about the duck. The duck is actually something created by a Dutch artist. It's over five stories tall. It's an inflatable duck, and it's been in the Hong Kong harbor for at least, I don't know, maybe six weeks. And people love the duck in Hong Kong, and it's got a lot of play here on the mainland. And so what somebody did today is they Photoshopped that famous picture of the man standing down the tank, but in this case, it's four gigantic rubber ducks in a line.

And what they were - obviously, what they were trying to do is kind of make fun of the government and maybe kind of draw the government into censorship.

CORNISH: And, of course, Chinese authorities are blocking a lot of things today on social media. Talk about what they're doing, why they're doing it.

LANGFITT: Well, the reason they are doing is they're not an elected government. And the last time they were really challenged, hundreds of people died 24 years ago in Beijing. And this is something that the government still doesn't feel that it can really talk openly about. It basically calls it a counterrevolutionary riot, if I remember correctly. And so the great concern is that if people delve more into it, it will erode the power of the government.

CORNISH: But when you talk about this, you know, anecdote about the duck, it seems like a sort of cat-and-mouse game. I mean, what are some of the other creative efforts that you've seen that people are using today to try and get around the censors?

LANGFITT: Well, they've done all kinds of creative things. And I think they're trying to make a point that the government, from their perspective, is overreacting. I'm looking right now at a screenshot of a Lego man standing in front of four green Lego tanks. There's another one where - a Photoshopped photo where there's a cow standing in front of four tractors that are aimed at the cow. So there are a lot of different things that the people have used.

Six-four in Chinese, they refer to this date as June 4, 6/4. And so people do a lot of plays with those numbers, as well, to try to get that message out there.

CORNISH: So does this blocking really work? I mean, if you're living in China and you get on the Internet today, I mean, what is it like?

LANGFITT: I think it's hard to find a lot of stuff. Most people, when they go looking for it, it doesn't last all that long. To give you an example, that rubber duck picture, China Media Project that focuses on the Internet here - they're out at the University of Hong Kong - they actually reposted that photograph on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, and it disappeared in 60 seconds. So that's how fast censors are reacting to things here.

The other thing is it's important to remember that a lot of people here have some familiarity with what happened 24 years ago, but a lot of people aren't that clear on it. For instance, I'll just give you an example. Back in 1997 when I first came to Beijing, I met a number of young women - they were in their 20's - and they were chatting with some American men. And the American men said, you know, we really respected what the Chinese did back in 1989 and that man standing up against those tanks.

And the women said: What man? What tanks? They hadn't actually ever seen that image. More people now, because the Internet is so big here, have seen it. But by and large, people aren't that familiar with what actually happened.

CORNISH: Frank, thank you so much for explaining it.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt talking about the anniversary of Tiananmen Square and efforts by the Chinese government to censor online references to it.

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