One unintended consequence of censorship might be losing track of what was supposed to be forbidden.
That’s a possible explanation for why the famous "Tank Man" photograph from June 1989 appeared on screen at a recent Michael Jackson tribute in Beijing. A New York Times story by Edward Wong says the image appeared at the opening performance of Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. The photo, distributed world wide by the Associated Press, shows one lone man facing line of military tanks near Tiananmen Square the day after Chinese troops opened fire killing and wounding thousands of unarmed protesters. The picture remains banned and controversial in China today.
Wong writes that a tour spokesman said the Chinese Ministry of Culture had reviewed the show in advance. The image, quickly removed,
may have just slipped through. Even with modern technology, it’s not
easy for governments to control every bit of information. Wong quotes
John Delury, co-author of Wealth and Power,
a new book on Chinese history, as saying that despite having the
world’s biggest online community, there are still certain texts and
images Chinese people don’t see. But it may be that censorship of
everything related to June 4, 1989 has been so thorough that some
censors didn’t recognize the taboo material.
Many ancient societies viewed censorship as a benevolent task
done for the public good, and the Times story notes that in imperial
times the punishment for publicizing banned materials in China could be
death. A recent story in the International Business Times
suggests modern Chinese restrictions on information impede economic
development, and notes that political bloggers and artists are routinely
arrested and Western news and social media websites are often blocked.
Sometimes generational amnesia erodes taboos. A story in The Global Times explores "Why Hitler is Hip in Thailand."
A leading university apologized after students displayed an image of
Hitler on a billboard along with comic super heroes at a graduation
event. Hitler images have also turned up in advertising and fashion. An
official with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations told the paper
many youngsters today have little knowledge of history, and students
said Nazis and the World War II stories they’d read seemed very distant
The U.S. has not been immune to censorship controversies, from the Alien and Sedition Acts through the recent leaks of classified documents. Some censorship has been local and not all has been governmental. School districts across the country have at various times banned books
such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Autobiography of
Malcolm X, and Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved. To
head off official censorship, the movie industry in the 1930s adopted
its own censorship code. Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 movie Rebecca was based on Daphne du Maurier's novel, in which Rebecca was slain by her husband. But Rebecca’s cinematic death was rewritten as accidental because the code forbade showing anyone getting away with murder.