The Yellow Rubber Duck Is a Potent Protest Symbol

(Bloomberg View) -- Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was in Moscow when protesters carrying images of a yellow rubber duck marched against top-level corruption. What he saw was a global ducky conspiracy.

"I don't believe in coincidences," Vucic said, according to the Serbian newspaper Novosti. "If someone tells me that different people have thought of the same symbol in Belgrade, Brazil and Moscow, don't expect me to believe it."

Vucic's skepticism is misplaced. The rubber duck has become an unlikely protest symbol in diverse countries, for diverse reasons.

In September, Russian corruption fighter and would-be presidential candidate Alexei Navalny published the first episode of his investigation into the palaces and estates used by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A video filmed from a drone showed an expensively renovated 18th century manor, featuring a pond complete with a duck house. Navalny recalled the scandal of Sir Peter Wiggers, the U.K. legislator who had tried to claim the cost of installing a waterfowl lodge as part of his parliamentary expenses. The Medvedev case, Navalny claimed, was far more outrageous. 

Russian social networks picked up the duck house story. Memes placed Medvedev's ducky on the Forbes list of the richest Russians; people expressed their willingness to quack and dive for bugs on the pond for a chance to live in the house. Over time, Medvedev's duck morphed into the floating yellow toy Vucic saw on the Moscow protest signs.

It must have been a jarring sight. In 2015, residents of Belgrade opposed a Vucic-backed $3.8 billion riverfront development that would block some of the city's best views. The protesters, carrying yellow rubber ducks, said they didn't want the riverfront taken over by the rich and the river turned into their private pond. They also said permits for the development had been obtained through corruption. In Serbian slang, patka, or "duck," also means "fraud." "Let's show them the duck," the protesters said. "Let's not allow Belgrade to drown." Sure enough, the yellow duck became a major irritant to the authorities, reappearing at demonstrations and city festivities.

Last year, the yellow rubber duck became a symbol of protest against the corrupt administration of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. "Enough paying the duck," angry Brazilians said. In local slang, "to pay the duck" means to pay for someone else's mistakes, in this case those of Rousseff -- especially the new taxes she tried to introduce to compensate for falling government revenues. The Brazilian ducks had x's for eyes -- why keep feeding it, let the duck die!

This use of the image enraged Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has floated giant rubber ducks in harbors and rivers around the world as a message of goodwill, turning bodies of water into giant baths with a toy for everyone. Hofman objected to Brazilians exploiting the ducky (which was patented by U.S. sculptor Peter Ganine in 1947) for political purposes.

I saw Hofman's duck in Hong Kong in 2013, when it floated in Victoria Harbor and tens of thousands of people came to see it. The piers were a forest of smartphones. I couldn't resist taking pictures, either. Even then, the duck had political connotations; a doctored version of the famous photo of a lone man in front of a column of tanks during the 1988 Tiananmen Square protests went viral, with giant ducks replacing the tanks. Chinese microblogging service Weibo responded by banning searches for "big yellow duck."

Despite Hofman's apolitical intentions, the duck evidently symbolized something more serious to Chinese people -- freedom. It's not an accident that giant yellow ducks floated in the harbors of Hong Kong and Taiwan but not in mainland Chinese cities.

Men like Vucic and his host, Vladimir Putin, live in a simple world without coincidences. In their view, protests against Serbian corruption, Russian inequality, insatiable Brazilian taxes and Chinese censorship are all run from a single center, presumably somewhere in the U.S.  They're not interested in the specific contexts and the associative logic that leads protesters to their choice of mascots. That's why they're likely someday to be blindsided by fury that will erupt where they didn't expect it.

The protesters who call Putin's and Vucic's bluffs live in a complex world; they don't want to accept their countries' warped reality just because they're told to do so. They need simple symbols to crystallize their grievances and to unite people around a cause that can't be explained in one sentence. So they adopt catchy images that a child can draw, and that look out of place in the official reality in which Vucic and Putin are comfortable. The yellow rubber duck looks absurd on a placard, on a city square filled with angry demonstrators, on a boat trying to dodge Serbian police, in place of a tank on Tiananmen Square. That suits the protesters just fine -- since what they're opposing is typically at least as absurd as enlisting a yellow rubber duck as a revolutionary icon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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