April was, by all accounts, a rough month for Shanghainese.
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus caused by Omicron in China’s largest city, millions of people were confined to their homes.
In a chilling echo of the lockdown imposed on the central city of Wuhan in 2020 after the virus first emerged, desperate pleas for help have gone unheard or quelled as authorities committed to eradicating the virus under China’s so-called ‘zero COVID’ strategy.
but only People in Wuhan have taken to social media to express their anger and panic Upon the outbreak and the authorities’ harsh response, residents in Shanghai questioned an approach that 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 have turned to magazines, video, audio, WeChat notes, and Weibo posts to Vent their frustrations And ask if infinite confinement makes 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 city’s creative citizens, reminiscent of the government’s previous battle to control the flowing information. outside of Wuhan.
Much of the information removed by observers spoke of the desperation shrouding Shanghai, including many calls for help from citizens: dialysis patients begging for admission to hospitals, families running out of food, and a cancer patient returning from chemotherapy but being refused admission. her apartment due to closure.
One post, which was quickly removed, provided a glimpse into the risks faced by those with other illnesses who died because their COVID-19 test was not negative, and were refused admission to hospital.
In another article titled “Ask for Help,” a netizen wrote calling on the government to pay more attention to the food supply, “In a city of 25 million people, even if the basic needs of 99% of them were met, there would still be 250,000 people whose needs had fallen.” from the cracks.” The next day he disappeared from the Internet.
Desperation and anger prevailed as the censors frantically deleted publications and articles they feared posed a threat to the “stability” that the ruling Communist Party values.
“The primary goal of CCP censorship is to prevent mass action on a large scale,” said Zachary Steinert Threlkeld, a professor at UCLA who studies protest movements and internet censorship. “Censorship is counterproductive if one thinks the goal is to prevent discontent from spreading to the lockdown, but it is fruitful if it prevents disturbed individuals from coordinating action outside their homes.”
In an attempt to deceive the authorities, some have tried to republish deleted articles or comments using various methods, such as uploading a mirror image of the original photos or translating articles into English to share bold messages via social media.
“Whoa, those who don’t want to be slaves” — the opening line of the Chinese national anthem — suddenly became a sentence too bold to be seen on social media, as the rounds were made on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, before the topic was mobbed.
“I want to say to the censors: The system you support is a system, the work you do is despised by everyone, every post you delete is a Weibo user and the post quickly went viral, in testimony to the growing outcry in Shanghai.
“It felt like Wuhan was back again, and I still had a hard time understanding why the censors were deleting posts that were basically just people asking for help,” Bailey, a Shanghai resident who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “None of this makes sense.”
But experts say that makes sense for the Chinese government, which aims to prevent the emergence of any kind of mass movement that could threaten its rule.
“This has happened many times before: there is a public outcry and censorship is ripping off in an attempt to stamp out criticism, and then people get angry at 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 will turn into real protests.
“Right now, people are angry, but then, with time, when the censorship gets tougher, the government will then be able to cut back on the hype,” she added.
Frustrated with the city authorities’ apparent failure to maintain food supplies and the government’s commitment to ‘zero COVID’, Shanghai residents have proven extraordinarily vocal.
“Shanghai should realize that other countries have adopted a more flexible approach to COVID, especially in 2022, and may feel that there are less risky policy options available to the CCP,” Steinert Threlkeld added.
Shanghai is also the most cosmopolitan city in China and home to some of the most educated people in the country, as well as a large number of foreigners and an army of social media influencers.
“These people are more likely to make their voices heard, and they have the means to do that as well,” Wang said.
The peak of the censorship came on April 22 when a video titled Voices of April appeared on Chinese social media.
A set of audio recordings played against the backdrop of a black-and-white aerial view of empty Shanghai, Voices of April chronicled the city’s ordeal in about six minutes, simultaneously capturing the harsh feelings of life under lockdown. The bustling city.
“Give us supplies,” the besieged residents shouted from their windows.
“Can I take some fever-reducing medicine please? My child has a high fever, but the hospitals don’t give us fever-reducing medicine,” another woman heard knocking from door to door.
“The virus will not kill us, but hunger will,” says one of the men.
“What if a fire breaks out? What do we do?” Someone else shouts, in an upset voice Placing fences around his neighborhood compoundwith the express intent of not letting anyone in or out.
“I’m really sorry, sir. I called all the numbers I could, and there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry,” a local official sighed as he spoke to a resident who complained about the shutdown.
The heart-wrenching video was quickly taken down online in China even as it continued to make the rounds on Twitter and Instagram – two platforms that have been banned in mainland China.
For a long time, almost all articles and posts shared on WeChat Moments Feed, the approximate equivalent of a Facebook feed, were flagged as “unviewable” because they “violated the rules.”
‘April Voices’ is a video with edited audio excerpts showing the reality of Covid-stricken Shanghai where residents are feeling helpless. The video leaked to every corner of WeChat, but soon after, it disappeared. Read: https://t.co/uqHFFC6X6S pic.twitter.com/2z2NTAASYw
– What’s on Weibo (WhatsOnWeibo) April 22 2022
As April draws to a close, more than 12 million people in Shanghai were told on Friday that they would be able to leave their homes — under certain conditions. However, more than five million people remain under strict lockdown, and there is little sign that the “normal life” that the Chinese government has long boasted was possible due to its “zero COVID” strategy.
“You should feel lucky to be living in China during the epidemic,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters during a press 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 are no longer so fortunate.
As announced by the authorities in Beijing comprehensive testShanghai residents with the scars of the lockdown have received a warning for people in the capital.
“Please stock up on your refrigerator now, leave Beijing now if you can, and no matter what, don’t believe everything the government tells you,” Ding, a Shanghai resident, wrote on her WeChat after the campaign was announced.