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China has always banned dissent. One man’s story shows how the Shanghai lockdown has kicked government censors into overdrive.

April 26, 2022, 11:20 AM UTC

Shanghai residents have been stuck inside for over a month, barred from leaving their apartments or compounds due to a citywide lockdown that’s combatting mainland China’s largest-ever COVID-19 outbreak. The lockdown has left millions without regular access to food. Authorities have killed pets suspected of carrying COVID, separated children from their parents, and deployed drones that hover above the city, squawking at residents to stay inside. On top of it all, many residents have been unable to tell their friends and families about what is actually happening in the city as government censors erase online content that reflects the public’s growing outrage.

George Zhang, a 27-year-old living in Shanghai, experienced the government’s efforts to silence dissent first-hand.

In late March, Zhang thought he was finally free. He had spent the previous 23 days locked in his one-bedroom Shanghai apartment. After several rounds of communal COVID-19 tests failed to discover any trace of the COVID virus, Zhang’s building manager and local officials had announced that they would finally open the gates to the apartment complex.

Zhang was eager to walk the streets of his neighborhood and shop at a local grocery store. But as he approached the gate, he noticed that the exit was blocked by a phalanx of dabai, or “big whites”—a mix of medical staff and municipal security guards kitted out in white full-body medical suits. A crowd of neighbors had gathered around the dabai and clamored to be let out. One neighbor told Zhang that some apartment residents had failed to show up for the compound’s most recent COVID test. Since the guards could not definitively say there were no cases in the apartment complex, they refused to allow anyone out.

“My neighbors were super mad,” says Zhang, who requested that he be identified by a pseudonym to avoid backlash from the Chinese government. Some residents began yelling at the guards to let them out. The confrontation erupted into a scuffle. Some neighbors tried to force their way past a set of barricades locking them in the compound. But the guards were adamant: no one could leave. Zhang says the police dragged “one or two” of his neighbors to the police station.

Zhang stayed on the sidelines of the conflict, but he took photos and videos of the incident and immediately uploaded them to his account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Within minutes, the post attracted over 100,000 views. Zhang abandoned his attempt to leave the compound and returned to his apartment, where, after a few hours, he received a phone call from a police officer from his local district. The officer demanded Zhang “apologize” for his post.

“This had never happened to me before, so of course, I felt nervous,” Zhang says. Zhang says the policeman said he was giving Zhang a chance to rectify his actions, which Zhang interpreted as a threat that he would be arrested if he did not comply.

And so Zhang deleted his initial post and replaced it with one apologizing for “spreading rumors” and thanking the “hard-working” COVID workers for protecting him and his neighbors. “I had to send them a screenshot with my apology,” Zhang says. Zhang says he only has a modest social media following and did not expect the post to garner so much attention. The fact that Zhang’s post got so many views so fast is likely why authorities wanted him to take it down, he says.

Zhang says the whole situation made him “upset” and more fearful of local authorities given how quickly they acted. “The [local government] does not want to let other people know what happened here,” he says.

Chinese internet censors in overdrive

Zhang’s story is one example of how China’s vast network of censors is racing to suppress information during Shanghai’s lockdown. Since March, Shanghai’s 25 million residents have been under various forms of lockdown and there is still no clear end in sight. Frustrations among Shanghai residents are boiling over, and China’s censorship apparatus is struggling to contain a flood of complaints from an increasingly emboldened and desperate public.

“Emotions are running high,” says Alfred Wu, a Chinese politics professor at the National University of Singapore. People in Shanghai are so fed up they are willing to test the limits of China’s internet restrictions.

In Shanghai, people “are being very outspoken in criticizing the government,” he says. “It’s so unique.” Censors are working in overdrive to take down sensitive content and complaints about the lockdown, Wu explained. But there have been so many posts and messages about Shanghai’s lockdown that censors are struggling to keep up, he says.

The ‘Voices of April’ viral video

Chinese censorship in general comes in several forms. Sometimes, censors directly contact people who post sensitive content to take it down, as in Zhang’s case. Other times, censors simply remove the content themselves. Social media platforms will also block users from searching certain terms.

The Shanghai lockdown has pushed censorship to new extremes. Weibo, for example, recently blocked users from searching the opening line of China’s own national anthem after some users made it into a rallying cry to urge people to fight the lockdown restrictions.

This weekend, a video called ‘Voices of April’ went viral on Chinese social media. The video is a compilation of voice recordings of residents describing Shanghai’s lockdown accompanied by melancholic instrumental music and black-and-white photos of empty Shanghai streets. At one point in the video, starving residents beg local officials for food. At another point, children cry while isolated away from their parents after testing positive for COVID.

Shortly after posting the video, its maker, who goes by ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ urged people not to share the video after censors took down his initial post. Users shared the video anyway, coming up with creative ways to evade censorship, such as embedding a link to the video in the QR code of an online Batman movie poster. Other users attempted to download and repost the video faster than censors could take down new posts.

Chinese censors have long been quick to quash any form of online dissent. China wants to convey to domestic and global audiences that Shanghai’s lockdown has been smooth and orderly, even as the reality of the COVID measures appears more haphazard and chaotic, Wu says. China’s state media outlets have published editorials championing China’s COVID-zero strategy, saying that lockdowns and other elimination measures like mass testing remain China’s “best option” for protecting the country’s health care systems. Outlets in China have also promoted local government efforts to ensure food supplies, stories of neighbors helping one another in lockdown, and reports of foreigners “embracing the necessity” of China’s COVID-zero policy. Some residents in Shanghai have installed virtual private networks to share their experiences on platforms like Twitter. VPNs mask users’ locations so they can log on to the free internet outside China.

“The official message is just that people [in Shanghai] are just quietly following the government’s orders,” says Wu.

Beijing’s COVID lockdown fears

But the tales of Shanghai’s dire situation are clearly reaching other Chinese cities. This week, Beijing residents emptied grocery store shelves of food, fearful that authorities might impose an indefinite, Shanghai-style lockdown after a few dozen cases emerged in the city.

Still, being unable to share what’s going on with friends and family has made Shanghai residents like Zhang still feel helpless.

“You cannot find any pictures or videos online about what is happening in my compound [anymore],” says Zhang. A month after his post was censored, Zhang has still been unable to leave his compound, which is now nearing Day 60 of its lockdown. Recently, some residents went to his gate to protest to building management about the apartment complex’s inadequate food supply. This time, Zhang did not post any pictures or videos of the incident on social media; he didn’t even go to the small protest.

“No matter what we do… nothing is going to change,” he says.

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