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‘Voices of April’: China’s internet erupts in protest against censorship of Shanghai lockdown video


CNN

By Nectar Gan and CNN’s Beijing Bureau

The shouts of locked-down residents demanding basic necessities, the cries of babies separated from their parents in quarantine, the pleas of a son repeatedly rejected by hospitals to treat his critically ill father, and the sobs of an exhausted local official who admits there is “no good policy” coming from higher authorities for her to explain to residents.

These voices, charged with raw frustration, agony and desperation, are among the montage of audio recordings featured in “Voices of April,” a video documenting the harsh impact of Shanghai’s nearly month-long lockdown.

The city-wide lockdown, among the strictest the country has seen, has plunged the once-bustling international financial hub into a virtual ghost town, causing shortage of food, daily necessities and even medical access for many of its 25 million residents confined to their homes.

“A month into the outbreak in Shanghai, I saw many people speaking out online, but most of them disappeared after a short while,” the maker of the video posted on WeChat Friday. “However, some things should not have happened, and they should not be forgotten.”

The personal plights, told in residents’ own voices and overlay with black-and-white aerial footage of the city’s silent skyline and empty streets, touched the hearts of millions of Chinese internet users as the video spread like wildfire across social media platforms on Friday evening.

But for the Chinese government, the six-minute clip — and the chaos and suffering it exposes — is too powerful a reminder of the human cost of its zero-Covid policy, which authorities insist are “putting the people and their lives first.”

Censors quickly stepped in, taking down the film as well as any references to it from China’s internet. On microblogging site Weibo, even the word “April” was temporarily restricted from search results.

The censorship sparked an outcry. Many were infuriated at the attempt by authorities to wipe out what they see as an objective documentation of the darker reality of the lockdown — one that can rarely be found in state media.

An online backlash ensued, with users joining a social media relay in defiance, sharing the video in whatever way they can come up with to evade censors. Some posted the video upside down, others embedded it in cartoon clips, and some circulated it through QR codes and cloud services. Censors struggled to keep up — no sooner would they block one version of the video did another resurface, and the mouse and cat game continued into the small hours of Saturday.

Some even shared a clip of the song “Do You Hear the People Sing,” a protest anthem from the 2012 movie Les Misérables.

The outpouring of anger reminded many of the public outcry two years ago following the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was punished by police for sounding the alarm of the coronavirus and died of Covid-19.

“They are still trying to gag our mouths and plug our ears,” a user wrote in the comment section of Li’s Weibo page shortly after midnight on Saturday.

The online protest is the latest sign of growing discontent toward the harsh Covid containment measures among Shanghai residents, as well as people in other parts of China who have watched the crisis unfold in horror on social media.

But instead of relaxing lockdown measures, Shanghai authorities have tightened resolve to bring cases down to zero outside designated quarantine sites.

In the city’s Pudong district, epidemic prevention authorities ordered “hard quarantine” to be installed in communities under the strictest level of lockdown — namely those which reported Covid cases over the past week — before Sunday, according to an official directive circulating online. On Saturday, Chinese social media was flooded with photos of workers in white hazmat suits installing green fences outside apartment buildings in Shanghai.

The tough new tactics have drawn more anger. “This kind of measures completely disregard fire safety. If a fire breaks out, rescue won’t arrive on time, the consequences will be unimaginable. Who will be responsible for it then?” a Weibo user commented.

The dysfunction and chaos of the Shanghai lockdown has put residents in other cities on alert.

In Beijing, residents rushed to buy groceries on Sunday evening amid a fresh coronavirus outbreak that officials described as “urgent and grim.” The Chinese capital recorded 19 new local cases on Sunday, bringing the total in the city since Friday to 60.

Chaoyang, one of the city’s largest districts, announced it would launch three rounds of mass testing of those who work and live in the district. Many fear that more stringent restrictions, such as a lockdown, could soon be implemented if more infections were detected.

Photos and videos shared online show long lines and empty shelves at Beijing supermarkets and “sold out” signs on grocery-delivery apps. On Weibo and Wechat, articles providing advises on what kind of food items and daily necessities to stock up on in case of a lockdown went viral.

The panic buying took place despite Beijing officials reassured residents at a news conference earlier in the day that “the city’s market supply for daily necessities is sufficient and trading is normal.”

“At Beijing’s fruit stores and supermarkets, everyone is panic buying. The section selling instant noodles is completely empty,” a resident said on Weibo Monday. “The psychological shadow Shanghai has brought us may not go away for quite some time.”

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