A six-minute video posted on Chinese social media platform WeChat painted a harrowing timeline of what was happening inside Shanghai during the city’s latest strict COVID lockdown.
After the video went viral, it was taken down by government censors. It got reposted, then taken down again. And again, and again.
“Because there’s no real obvious, reliable voice of authority, it’s always felt like we get news through rumors or WeChat,” Olivia, a resident of Shanghai who lived through the lockdown and asked for her last name to be omitted to protect against government retaliation, told BuzzFeed News. “It doesn’t feel legitimate. It’s kind of like how in America, if you get news on Twitter, there’s kind of an element like, is this real?”
Throughout the entire lockdown, social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat became hubs for citizens’ protests. “Balcony parties,” opportunities for residents to go on their balconies and film themselves shouting their frustrations, quickly became a viral form of digital resistance.
It was the 26th day of lockdown in Shanghai when WeChat users began to circulate the now-infamous video, 四月之声 (Si Yue Zhi Sheng), “The Voices of April,” on April 22.
For many in Shanghai, the video was the first time they witnessed what their 26 million fellow residents were experiencing, in alarming audio snippets, with no end date in sight.
Filmed in black and white, the viral video shows aerial footage of residential buildings across the Puxi district combined with disjointed audio recordings of citizens, speaking both Mandarin and Shanghainese. “The police are bringing us food,” a voice says in the video. “The good police of Shanghai. We haven’t eaten in days.”
“Are they beating it to death?” a woman asks, while a blow lands on an animal in the background. “Oh my god.”
“I did a PCR test in the hospital and then I went to do chemotherapy,” one woman says outside her neighborhood. “Compounds are not allowing entrance,” a man replies in the background.
“Is he not letting you enter?” another voice asks. “They are residents here! They live inside, you’re not letting people in, how does that make any sense?”
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.
But users formed a “relay” protest, with different individuals reposting new versions of the video every time it was censored and adding their own audio clips to the comments. Censors were locked in a digital goose chase with citizens, attempting to tamp down a highly public show of government criticism.
On social media, lockdown looked like a total dystopian police state, with drones and robots surveilling citizens. In reality, quarantine rules were strict across the city but largely dependent on the number of neighborhood cases. Generally, no car transport was allowed. Residents could receive a pass to leave their neighborhoods on foot or by bike. If your area’s cases decreased, outdoor time allowances became more lenient.
The only central “trusted” channel of information was the official Shanghai government’s channel on Weibo, which operates similarly to Twitter. But many remained skeptical of any information coming out of the government.
“It was a really confusing time,” Olivia said. “I don’t know what’s true or not. And I don’t know who I would ask if things are true or not. No one watches TV for the news, except maybe old people. Towards the end of quarantine, news [channels] would deliberately try and make the government look good, and be like, look how good we’re doing!”
So social media was the main news source for Olivia, where she’d see posts from other people in the same boat. Many social media users began pointing out holes in the official coverage, whether it was a shot of a local grocery store 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, an assistant professor at the University of Hampshire studying new media technologies and China, told BuzzFeed News that the confusion caused by trying to determine what was real and fake has been a core part of the frustrations with lockdown.
“People are still trying to make sense of what happened,” she said. “But I think it’s encouraging that despite the heavy censorship in China, people are still circulating these kinds of words like ‘Si Yue Zhi Sheng’ and being motivated further to stand up against authority. It speaks to the power, but also the limits, of censorship.”
One popular post on Weibo, with over 65,000 likes, showed a drone appearing after a balcony party, announcing: “Please, let’s comply with COVID quarantine restrictions… Please control your soul’s desire for freedom — do not open the window and sing. Take care of your community.”
Medical workers, nicknamed 大白 (Da Bai or “big whites”) after their white hazmat suits, are quarantine enforcers that became a symbol of dystopian surveillance. The hashtag 大白打人 (Da Bai Da Ren, “big whites are hitting people”) trended on Weibo as 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 around if these videos were pushed out by the government to encourage residents to comply.
“What is censored around China gains lots of attention abroad, which is good in that it keeps things alive and gets outside eyes on it,” Zhang said. “But then those things are the only images that get seen abroad.”
WeChat felt like a more accessible platform for people to talk critically of the government measures, Olivia said, as the app only allows you to see posts from friends. The app is an integral part of Chinese society, with WeChat Pay being the main channel for payment at businesses across the country, as well as the central messaging platform.
“It feels like you’re just ranting,” Olivia said. “Weibo is really public, like you’re making a statement to the world. How else does anger travel if not by social media, by group chats and WeChat moments, which disappear after a few days?”
Michelle, whose last name has also been omitted to protect her privacy, left Shanghai after the first lockdown in 2020. She told BuzzFeed News that watching from abroad this year via TikTok and WeChat surprised her. At the beginning of the pandemic, isolation had been a smooth process, she said. Da Bai escorted you to your quarantine location. A local government official would take your temperature every day, and food was easy to order and come by.
“There was no scarcity mindset that you can see now,” she said. “It was actually a super sophisticated infrastructure.”
But “Si Yue Zhi Sheng” revealed the sharp divide between rich and poor during the most recent lockdown.
At the start of quarantine, Olivia went for a jog along the river near her home. A community college sits on the other side of the bank and she could hear students yelling for help.
“I heard people in the dorms across the river screaming that they don’t have food, and they were hungry. It’s hard to hear that, because there’s nothing you can do to help, because you’re also trying to get food,” she said. “They were dragging people out to the quarantine camps every day. You could really see the disparity in access.”
Lockdown disproportionately affected the poor. Shanghai’s city government is broken down into local neighborhood committees who oversee and regulate areas as small as individual compounds and streets. The committees were responsible for communicating lockdown information, providing and managing food deliveries for residents, and enforcing rules.
Social media users quickly began to disseminate posts comparing the differences between the richest neighborhoods, which received imported goods like breakfast cereals, compared to poorer neighborhoods that were sent spoiled produce and smaller servings. Many of these wealthy areas in Shanghai, like the famed Lu Jia Zui financial district, are populated with international expatriates, who are often white and from Western countries.
“At the beginning, my local committee only gave us two cans of Spam,” Olivia said. “A friend of mine, who lives in another not-as-wealthy area, got a plastic bag of rotten chicken wings and legs, and some bad potatoes. And then I would see posts about people from the richer, more international districts who would be throwing away their produce, because they had so much.”
Watching the lockdown through social media, Michelle expressed concerns for the Western perception of China. “The US has always bashed on China for various reasons,” she said. “And I used to just say that they don’t understand. They have different values. When people would call it a police state, I used to say, privacy also comes at a cost, and having security cameras everywhere means there’s no crime. But what’s going on is horrible. I’m ashamed.”
Michelle said she’s always been so proud of Shanghai but the government policies that are keeping people in place have changed that.
“People can’t get the medical supplies they need, they can’t walk their dogs,” she said. “People are going hungry. I’m having a hard time excusing it.”
A huge concern around raising these issues outside Chinese platforms, Zhang also pointed out, is the contentious Western perception of COVID and China. Any whisper of criticism can have a huge impact on Chinese people living abroad, making even nuanced debate about the government difficult.
“Especially because of the geopolitical tensions, it can perpetuate ignorance and eventually violence towards East Asians living abroad,” she said. “It’s all connected, so that makes it hard to make legit critiques about what the government does and provide a more complicated picture of the Chinese people.”
Shanghai abruptly lifted the quarantine period on June 1. Olivia said she received the news through a government message shared across WeChat. “It felt like they went from 0 to 100, all of a sudden,” she said.
Now mini-quarantines are occurring, with individual buildings shutting down for 24-hour or 48-hour sessions when a case arises in the neighborhood. Some neighborhoods are still in lockdown, while others are free to return to traveling by car. The first thing Olivia did when she got out? “I literally just went straight back to work,” she said.
Dine-in restaurants and bars are still closed, preventing large groups from gathering, but Olivia said this week she saw people getting drunk with their friends on the street, ringing in summer.
“The night before, I could hear lots of fireworks going off,” she said. “It was really exciting and joyous, but does feel a little unstable.”
She said that on WeChat, many have still been sharing rumors and worries about restrictions. “People are still suspicious that there could be another one,” she said.