April was, by all accounts, a cruel month for the inhabitants of Shanghai.
As an Omicron-induced COVID-19 outbreak swept through China’s largest city, millions of people were confined to their homes.
In an eerie echo of the lockdown imposed on the central city of Wuhan in 2020 after the virus emerged, desperate pleas for help went unheeded or were muted as authorities pledged to eradicate the virus under so-called ‘covid zero’. China. strategy.
But as same as people in Wuhan took to social media to show their anger and dismay In the face of the outbreak and a harsh response from authorities, Shanghai residents have questioned an approach that has disrupted food supplies, separated families and strained medical resources.
With much of the rest of the world trying to live with the virus, people in Shanghai turned to diaries, videos, audio, WeChat notes and Weibo posts to vent your frustrations and wonder if the endless lockdown even made sense.
But in a country where public discourse and social media are tightly controlled, the Chinese government soon decided enough was enough, sparking a cat-and-mouse game between censors and the restless, creative citizens of the city, who remember the previous battle of the government to control the information that flows. outside of Wuhan.
Much of the information removed by censors spoke of the despair engulfing Shanghai, including many calls for help from citizens: dialysis patients begging to be admitted to hospitals, families running out of food, and a returning cancer patient. from chemotherapy and who was denied entry to his apartment due to the lockdown.
One post, quickly deleted, offered a glimpse into the dangers faced by people with other illnesses who died because their COVID-19 test did not come back negative and they were denied hospital admission.
In another article called “Call for Help,” a netizen demanding that the government pay more attention to food supply wrote, “In a city with 25 million people, even if basic needs were met for 99% of them, there would still be 250,000 people whose needs disappeared.” The next day he had disappeared from the internet.
A sense of desperation and anger reigned as censors continued to frantically delete posts and articles they feared were a threat to the “stability” so dear to the ruling Communist Party.
“The main goal of CCP censorship is to prevent large-scale collective action,” said Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who studies protest movements and online censorship. “Censorship is counterproductive if one thinks that the goal is to prevent discontent from spreading, but it is productive if it prevents upset people from coordinating actions outside their homes.”
In an attempt to outwit the authorities, some tried to repost deleted articles or comments using different methods, such as uploading a mirror image of the original photos or translating articles into English to share bold messages on social media.
“Arise, those who do not want to be slaves”, the first line of the Chinese national anthem, suddenly became too bold a phrase to be seen on social media, doing the rounds on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, before it the topic was deleted
“I want to say to those in charge of censorship: the regime you support is shit, the work you do is shit, the work you do is despised by everyone, every post you take down is shit. a bullet you fire at yourself, you are an accomplice and not innocent,” one user wrote on Weibo and the post was soon shared widely, a testament to the anger brewing in Shanghai.
“I felt like Wuhan again, and I’m still struggling to understand why censors would remove posts that were basically just people asking for help,” Billy, a Shanghai resident who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “None of this makes sense.”
But experts say it makes sense for the Chinese government, whose goal is to prevent the rise of any kind of mass movement that could threaten its rule.
“This has happened many times before: there is a public uproar and the censors swoop in to try to suppress criticism, and then people are angry about the censorship,” Wang Yaqiu, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. . . “But if you look at history, none of this public uproar turned into substantive protests.
“At the moment, people are angry, but then over time, when the censorship gets tighter, the government will be able to reduce the fuss,” he added.
Fueled by their frustration at the city authorities’ apparent failure to maintain food supplies and the government’s commitment to ‘zero COVID’, Shanghai residents have been unusually vocal.
“Shanghai people should realize that other countries have adopted more flexible approaches to COVID, especially in 2022, and probably feel that there are less harsh policy options available to the CCP,” Steinert-Threlkeld added.
Shanghai is also China’s most international city and home to some of the country’s most educated people, as well as a host of foreigners and an army of social media influencers.
“These people are more likely to make their voices heard and they also have the means to do so,” Wang said.
The height of the censorship came on April 22, when a video called Voices of April surfaced on Chinese social media.
A collection of audio recordings played against the backdrop of a black-and-white aerial view of an empty Shanghai, Voices of April recounted the ordeal the city was going through in roughly six minutes, capturing the raw emotions of the life under lockdown in what was once a bustling city.
“Give us supplies,” the confined residents shout from their windows.
“Can I please have some antipyretic medications? My son has a high fever, but the hospitals don’t give us antifever,” another woman was heard knocking from one door to another.
“The virus won’t kill us, but hunger will,” says one man.
“What if there is a fire? What do we do?” yells another, audibly annoyed by the fences placed around your neighborhood complexwith the apparent aim of not letting anyone in or out.
“I’m so sorry, sir. I called all the numbers I could and I can’t do anything. Sorry,” a local official sighed as he spoke to a resident who was complaining about the closure.
The heartbreaking video was soon removed from the internet in China, even as it continued to circulate on Twitter and Instagram, two platforms that are blocked in mainland China.
For an extended period, almost all articles and posts shared on the WeChat Moments Feed, the rough equivalent of the Facebook Feed, were labeled “not viewable” because they “violated the rules.”
‘Voices of April’ is a video containing edited audio clips showing the reality of a Covid-affected Shanghai, where residents struggle with feelings of helplessness. The video leaked to all corners of WeChat, but disappeared soon after. Read: https://t.co/uqHFFC6X6S pic.twitter.com/2z2NTAASYw
— What’s on Weibo (@WhatsOnWeibo) April 22, 2022
As April drew to a close, more than 12 million people in Shanghai were told on Friday that they could leave their homes, under certain conditions. Yet more than five million remain under strict lockdown, and there is little sign of the vaunted ‘normal life’ that the Chinese government has long boasted is possible thanks to its ‘zero COVID’ strategy.
“You should feel lucky to live in China during the pandemic,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told a room of reporters during a news conference late last year as the rest of the world grappled with rising cases. .
Amid the outbreak in Shanghai and the emergence of small clusters of infections in Beijing, many Chinese residents no longer feel so lucky.
As the Beijing authorities announced massive testsShanghai residents, scarred by the lockdown, had a warning for the people of the capital.
“Please fill your fridge now, get out of Beijing now if you can, and no matter what, don’t believe everything the government tells you,” Ding, a Shanghai resident, wrote on WeChat shortly after the announcement was made. campaign.