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Inflatable Giant Golden Toad Sparks Internet Crackdown in China

Image: A giant inflatable toad is seen floating on a lake at the Yuyuantan Park in Beijing

A giant inflatable toad is seen floating on a lake at the Yuyuantan Park in Beijing, July 19, 2014. CHINA STRINGER NETWORK / Reuters

BEIJING - The 77-foot-tall golden inflatable toad was supposed to inspire enthusiasm for traditional Chinese art. But no sooner had the replica amphibian been seen floating on a lake in a Beijing park than it prompted a wave of subversive humor online.

Comments on Chinese social media made fun of the puffed-up creature that happens to resemble China’s former president Jiang Zemin. Posts complete showed photos of the stern-looking leader sat next to a bespectacled toad on a green lotus leaf.

"Who does it look like?" read an anonymous comment on Weibo, China's Twitter-like service.

"A deaf-mute giant toad stands in the middle of the lake alone. It looks like a despot-king now, but everything will end on the day of reckoning," another intoned ominously.

The comparison with Jiang at a sensitive time of the party’s anti-corruption crackdown was too much for China’s censors. Soon enough, China’s leading news agency Xinhua, and many other major sites began blocking searches for the golden toad.

“The page cannot be found” and “Sorry, the story has been deleted or expired” read typical responses, though some searches were still possible on smaller websites.

Meanwhile, the author of the original altered image of the giant toad with glasses deleted the image from his Weibo account.

Jiang Zemin
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin takes part in the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing in 2012. Ng Han Guan / AP file

Inspired by the success of the Rubber Duck created by Dutch designer Florentijn Hofman, the giant toad - a creature that symbolizes good fortune - was meant to emphasize traditional Chinese culture, its creator Guo Yonghao told local media. Guo spent some $1.3 million on the project.

“We have no comments,” said the Beijing park’s spokeswoman when asked about the online controversy, adding that plans for the giant toad’s public display until Aug. 20 were “unchanged for now.”

China’s anti-corruption drive, which has toppled unprecedented number of officials, is spawning rumors that Jiang’s former associates could become targets as well. The censorship appears to be a strong signal to protect the legacy of 87-year-old Jiang, who was party chief from 1989 to 2007.

It is not the first time that social media users have seized on well-known symbols and photographs to send a political message. Last year, a mash-up of Hofman's Rubber Duck image was used to spread the word about the anniversary of the 1989 crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. A photo of the iconic "tank man" image facing four giant ducks instead of the familiar military vehicles soon went viral, and a for a while "big yellow duck" became one of unsearchable phrases on Weibo.