A six-minute video posted on WeChat depicted Shanghai’s latest COVID lockdown. Government censors removed the viral video. Reposted, then removed. Repeatedly.
“Because there’s no obvious, reliable voice of authority, we get news through rumors or WeChat,” a Shanghai resident who lived through the lockdown told BuzzFeed News. “It’s fake. It’s like how Americans question the veracity of Twitter news.
Weibo and WeChat were hubs for protests during the lockdown. “Balcony parties,” where residents film themselves shouting their frustrations, quickly went viral.
WeChat users began circulating “The Voices of April” on April 22, the 26th day of Shanghai’s lockdown.
Many in Shanghai saw the video for the first time, hearing alarming audio snippets with no end date.
Black-and-white aerial footage of Puxi residential buildings is combined with Mandarin and Shanghainese audio recordings. A video says, “The police are bringing us food.” “Shanghai police. We’ve gone days without food.
A woman asks as an animal in the background is hit. OMG.
A woman says outside her neighborhood, “I did a PCR test and then chemotherapy.” A man in the background says, “Compounds are closed.”
“Is he denying entry?” Asks another. “They’re locals!” They live inside, why don’t you let people in?
After “Si Yue Zhi Sheng” was posted, government censors that remove content criticizing the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP) began to delete the video, even making the title unsearchable in WeChat.
Users formed a “relay” protest by reposting new versions of the video and adding audio clips to the comments. Censors engaged in a digital goose chase with citizens to stifle government criticism.
On social media, lockdown resembled a dystopian police state with drones and robots. In reality, quarantine rules varied by neighborhood and were strict citywide. Cars weren’t permitted. Residents could get passes to leave on foot or bike. In areas with fewer cases, outdoor time was relaxed.
Only the official Shanghai government’s Weibo channel was “trusted” Many distrusted government information.
Olivia: “It was confusing.” “I’m unsure what’s true. Who would I ask if something is true? Only old people watch TV news. Near the end of quarantine, news [channels] would try to make the government look good, saying, “Look how good we’re doing!”
Olivia’s main news source was social media, where she saw similar posts. Many social media users pointed out holes in the official coverage, such as a grocery store shot that appeared to be a TV set or B-roll of an official walking through a deserted compound that users argued was a rooftop.
Lin Zhang, a University of Hampshire assistant professor who studies new media technologies and China, told BuzzFeed News that determining what is real and fake has been a source of frustration with lockdown.
“People are still trying to understand,” she said. “It’s encouraging that despite heavy censorship in China, people are still circulating words like ‘Si Yue Zhi Sheng’ and standing up to authority. It shows censorship’s power and limits.
One Weibo post with over 65,000 likes showed a drone after a balcony party saying, “Please comply with COVID quarantine restrictions… Please control your soul’s desire for freedom; don’t sing. Care for your community.”
Medical workers nicknamed (Da Bai or “big whites”) for their white hazmat suits became a symbol of dystopian surveillance. People uploaded videos of medical workers allegedly using physical force against citizens who broke lockdown rules, but given the heavy censorship, there is also a counter-conversation about whether these videos were pushed out by the government to encourage residents to comply.
“What’s censored in China gets a lot of attention abroad, which is good because it keeps things alive,” Zhang said. These are the only images seen overseas.
WeChat was a more accessible platform for criticizing government measures, Olivia said, because it only shows posts from friends. WeChat Pay is the main payment method in Chinese businesses and the central messaging platform.
Olivia: “You’re ranting.” “On Weibo, you’re making a global statement.” How else does anger spread if not through social media, group chats, and WeChat moments?
Michelle left Shanghai after the first lockdown in 2020 to protect her privacy. She said watching from abroad on TikTok and WeChat surprised her. She said isolation was easy early in the pandemic. Da Bai took you to quarantine. A local official took your temperature daily, and food was easy to get.
No scarcity mindset, she said. It was a sophisticated system.
“Si Yue Zhi Sheng” showed the recent divide between rich and poor.
Olivia jogged along her neighborhood river before quarantine. She could hear students yelling for help from a nearby community college.
I heard dorm residents across the river screaming that they were hungry. It’s hard to hear that when you’re trying to get food, she said. Daily, they dragged people to quarantine camps. Access disparities were obvious.”
Lockdown affected the poor disproportionately. Local neighborhood committees oversee and regulate Shanghai’s compounds and streets. The committees communicated lockdown information, managed food deliveries, and enforced rules.
Social media users compared the richest neighborhoods, which received imported goods like breakfast cereals, to poorer neighborhoods, which received spoiled produce and smaller servings. Many of Shanghai’s wealthy areas, like the Lu Jia Zui financial district, are populated by white, Western expatriates.
Olivia: “My local committee only gave us two Spam cans.” My friend in a less-wealthy area got rotten chicken wings, legs, and potatoes. I’d see posts about richer, more international districts throwing away their produce because they had so much.
Michelle worried about how the lockdown would affect China’s image in the West. She said, “The US has always criticized China.” “And I’d say they don’t understand. Values differ. When people called it a police state, I’d say privacy costs money and everywhere having security cameras means no crime. This is awful. “I’m sorry”
Michelle was always proud of Shanghai, but government policies have changed that.
She said, “People can’t get medical supplies or walk their dogs.” “People starve. I can’t justify it.”
Zhang also noted the contentious Western perception of COVID and China when raising these issues outside Chinese platforms. Any criticism can have a big impact on Chinese abroad, making nuanced debate difficult.
“Geopolitical tensions can perpetuate ignorance and violence against East Asians abroad,” she said. “It’s all connected, so it’s hard to critique the government and paint a complex picture of the Chinese people.”
Shanghai lifted quarantine June 1. Olivia received the news via WeChat. “They went from 0 to 100 overnight,” she said.
When a case occurs in a neighborhood, individual buildings are quarantined for 24 or 48 hours. Some neighborhoods remain locked down, while others can drive again. Olivia’s first move after leaving? She immediately returned to work.
Olivia saw people getting drunk on the street this week to ring in summer, even though restaurants and bars are still closed.
The night before, she heard fireworks. “It was exciting and joyful, but unstable.”
She said WeChat users still share rumors and worries about restrictions. “People are still suspicious,” she said.