A virtual protest has taken place on China’s heavily monitored social media platforms, where netizens took turns to keep a censored video called the Voice of April alive and overwhelm censors.
The six-minute short documentary is a collage of audio snippets of government official announcements, as well as residents’ descriptions of their sufferings during Shanghai’s strict lockdowns in the last three weeks. The video showed the city’s skyline presented without commentary and was mostly in black and white. The ending card of the video read: “Get better soon, Shanghai.”
The video was quickly taken down from China’s internet, but it continued to spread on WeChat on Friday. Users found creative ways to circulate the video by embedding a QR code in a film poster, or directing others to cloud services to download it.
In the past few days, creative netizens have produced numerous content to express their frustration. Some mixed the British band Slaves’ 2015 single Cheer Up London with a few defining images of the last three weeks of lockdown in Shanghai. Others changed the script of American comedy duo Key & Peele’s A Man Who Enjoys a Continental Breakfast and dubbed it in Shanghainese dialect, to imagine what it would look like when a Shanghai man was finally allowed to enjoy a nice breakfast after the lockdown was lifted.
The rare show of defiance on Friday night came shortly after the authorities announced further strengthening of the lockdown in China’s most populous city – home to 25 million people and a key financial hub in mainland China. Despite the criticism, Shanghai is doubling down on its “dynamic clearance” to eradicate the spread of the virus, neighborhood by neighbourhood.
It is unclear how widespread such a movement has become on Chinese internet and beyond Shanghai, but analysts said Friday’s eruption of dissenting creativity is reminiscent of a similar episode in the early days of the Wuhan lockdown. In early March 2020, Chinese netizens used creative ways to keep a censored magazine profile of a Wuhan medical professional, Dr Ai Fen, circulating.
“After weeks of draconian lockdown, there’s a sense of deep frustration and discontent for residents of Shanghai, but also a sense of solidarity for those who were not in the middle of it,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago . “I am surprised that many who were reposting the video and other materials did not see the act as political.”
He continued: “For the authorities, this collective action and the implied criticism of the lockdown, sends a potent message they’re working hard to censor. Our understanding of this act also needs to be considered with the localized acts of defiance and protest, in the beating of cooking utensils and the noncompliance with nucleic acid testing orders.”
Hu Xijin, the former editor of nationalist tabloid the Global Times weighed in late on Friday night to justify the erasure of the video. He said the internet was invented by the west, so when it entered China it ought to be “sinofied”. He urged citizens to trust the government and remain confident in China’s resilience.
The phrase, The Voice of April, has now been taken down on Weibo. But some Chinese netizens are posting images with quotes to indirectly express their dissatisfaction.
In one entry, Jin Xing, one of Shanghai’s best-known TV talkshow hosts, posted a photo of Mao Zedong with the quote: “People in China and around the world, even our enemies, will use the performance of our work in Shanghai to examines whether our party has the ability to manage a big city and the whole country.”
At times, the subtle show of defiance was poetic. One user commented, in response to the censoring of Voice of April, with a poem from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain”
But as censors rushed to take down explicitly critical content, users began to post materials that on the surface did not seem as controversial. For example, on WeChat, some have used a clip from one of China’s foreign ministry spokespeople, in which she said Chinese citizens have the right to free speech and freedom of thought.
Others quoted the phrase from China’s zero-Covid policy to describe the cat-and-mouse game with the censors. “This is called ‘dynamic clearance’,” they wrote.