Cirque du Soleil pulls Tiananmen image from China shows after 'collective gasp'

Iconic Tiananmen massacre photo passed the censors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 11:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 2:44am

Cirque du Soleil has removed a photo of the Tiananmen crackdown from its show in China after surprising an audience of 15,000 in Beijing with the iconic "tank man" image, which remains banned and highly controversial in the country.

The Canadian art troupe is currently on its Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour, celebrating the musical legacy of the US pop artist who died in 2009.

During its first performance at the MasterCard Center in Beijing last Friday, three large screens showed the Associated Press photo of an unarmed man, who temporarily stopped tanks near Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. 

The photo appeared for four seconds during Jackson's track They Don’t Care About Us and "within a montage sequence of civil-rights style protest movements, resulting in an audible collective gasp from the audience", according to a blogpost on That's Beijing, which has since been deleted. 

The tour's publicist Laura Silverman said in an e-mailed statement that "the image was removed immediately and is no longer shown". "Our scheduled performances will go on as planned," she said.

On Thursday, the troupe is scheduled to perform its first of four performances in Shanghai, before heading to Hong Kong on Monday.

In what appears to be a blunder by Chinese censors, she said the art troupe had submitted the full show for approval as required by the Chinese Ministry of Culture.

“The Cirque du Soleil incident is just the latest in a line of embarrassing, high profile 'slips' the Chinese censors have made with respect to foreign performers and content,” said Robert Cain, from the entertainment consultancy Pacific Bridge.

“There are always instances where the censors' ax falls in a seemingly capricious and unpredictable manner,” he said. “But I haven't seen any evidence of a shift in the status quo.”

Cirque du Soleil is not the first foreign performer getting caught up with the ministry's strict regulations on what can and cannot be said on a stage in mainland China.

In 2011, US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote in a rare statement he was not aware of any of his songs being censored during his tour of China. He chose not to perform political songs such as Hurricane and The Times They Are a-Changin' on tour.

Months ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, singer Björk, who enjoyed a huge fan base in China, embarrassed her official hosts by calling for Tibetan independence during a concert in Shanghai.

While official news media went silent, bulletin boards, the predecessors of microblogs, flared up. The Icelandic pop star has not performed in the country since.