Cirque du Soleil Show Tanks in China
If a banned photograph of a cataclysmic event appears in a public spectacle, does it make a sound?
That's just one of the questions raised by Cirque du Soleil's opening night in Beijing this week. The show included a vast video screen, which at one point featured a fleeting, iconic image of a man in Tiananmen Square facing down a row of tanks. Celebrated throughout the (Western) world for its depiction of a lone individual's defiance of state violence, the image is precisely the type that Chinese censors are employed to hunt down and destroy.
But the Chinese government's attack on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square took place more than two decades ago. Is it possible that Chinese censorship has worked too well? That China has lost track of its own history -- even events familiar to the rest of the world?
As Edward Wong wrote in the Times:
It could be, though, that blanket censorship of all things related to June 4, 1989, has resulted in such widespread amnesia about the episode that even some censors can no longer recognize the taboo material for what it is.
Further complicating interpretations, Wong quoted concert-goer Stephen George, writing in a blog post that subsequently disappeared from its Chinese site, stating that the image of the tank man had produced "an audible collective gasp from the audience." Another attendee, Portuguese journalist Vera Peneda, said she noticed no such gasp. So apparently only some people heard the totalitarian tree when it fell in the forest.
Cirque du Soleil has now removed the photo from its show, a cleansing act it justifies in language more reminiscent of 1984 than 1989.
"We believe in diversity and are apolitical," said spokeswoman Laura Silverman in an e-mail to the South China Morning Post. Apolitical? Fine. But belief in diversity of what? Oppression? Violence? Truth?
Why did Cirque du Soleil put the photograph in the show if it didn't intend to make a statement? Is it possible that the troupe is as ignorant of modern Chinese history as a Chinese censor?
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)