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Coronavirus: Shanghai residents evade censors to expose life during lockdown

People in China's business capital are flooding social media with content documenting the widespread backlash towards the city's strict lockdown. Censors have been unable to keep up.

People on their balconies in Shanghai

People in Shanghai have been confined to their homes for weeks

Under China's strict "zero-COVID" policy, most of Shanghai's population of 26 million remains under a strict lockdown, with people depending on government deliveries of food and supplies.

As residents express their discontent with the government, more and more images and videos of Shanghai's lockdown, depicting the frustration of people who have been confined to their homes for weeks, are making it past the censors.

Families have been separated after testing positive for COVID, and essential medical treatment has been delayed. On Tuesday, around 20% of the city's residents outside of the strict quarantine zones were permitted to leave their homes for a brief period.  

Videos from last week show neighborhoods filled with the noise of residents protesting by banging pots and pans out their windows, demanding authorities provide more food and supplies; others show men yelling "give me back my freedom."

One video features a woman's voice coming out of a neighborhood loudspeaker, warning residents not to protest, and claiming the backlash towards Shanghai's lockdown policy is a "conspiracy initiated by external forces."

"We hope everyone can distinguish right from wrong and express reasonable demands in the right way," the woman shouts.

Watch video 03:01

Shanghai paralyzed by lockdown

Shanghai residents bypass censors

"What we see online is a very small amount of the information available, and the fact is most people are not speaking out as much as they probably would like to," said Dali Yang, a Sinologist at the University of Chicago.

However, Shanghai residents have been devising more ways to share their experiences during the city's lockdown.

A recent montage of audio recordings called "Voices of April" that went viral includes residents' demands for basic necessities, crying babies separated from their parents, and people pleading for hospitals to treat their dying family members.

Despite efforts to remove the six-minute montage from the Chinese internet, Chinese netizens and members of the diaspora community have found ways to preserve the montage on Western social media platforms.

"Since Shanghai has a larger population than other cities, when netizens began to spread 'Voices of April,' the force was unstoppable," said Li-Peng Liu, a former content moderator at several Chinese tech companies who now analyzes censorship for news website China Digital Times.

"If a place has a higher social media penetration rate, it will also have a larger population online. In smaller places in China, even when something is happening, relevant information might often be removed before it is shared with the outside world, but in Shanghai, it will be harder to censor sensitive information online immediately," he told DW. 

Liu added that the online discontent expressed by Shanghai residents has put a lot of pressure on China's censorship regime.

"If only 200,000 people are expressing their opinions online, the content operators can easily censor that content," he said. "But when there are 25 million people, the censorship regime will be overwhelmed."

Ting Guo, a Chinese Studies scholar at the University of Toronto, told DW that Shanghai has "all the resources and talents so it didn't come as a surprise to see the kind of expression online."

"The exhibition or demonstration of such creativity isn't unique to Shanghai. Over the years, in other parts of China, not just large cities, we always see a very creative and courageous demonstration of ideas and some other forms of activism," she added.

Watch video 02:39

Under lockdown, Shanghai residents upset by lack of food

Lockdown caught Shanghai by surprise

However, since the lockdown began last month, Shanghai residents have repeatedly expressed astonishment that they are experiencing the kind of harsh lockdown previously imposed on smaller cities in China.

"I thought the situation of starvation due to the lack of food and supplies wouldn't happen in major cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, but the situation in Shanghai over the last few weeks proves that it is not too different from the rest of China," a Shanghai resident, who requested anonymity over fear of reprisals, told DW.

China expert Yang said that residents of Shanghai and its surrounding areas usually have a sense of superiority compared to other provinces. 

"But in a time of crisis, it's not Shanghai that determines the future of China, but it's the rest of China that determines the future of Shanghai. There are people who did think at the beginning of the outbreak that maybe Shanghai could try a different path for managing COVID, but that's clearly not the case," he added.

University of Toronto scholar Guo, who is also a Shanghai native, says the shock towards what's happening in the metropolis comes from the illusion that it is exceptional.

"People in Shanghai think they have a higher level of autonomy, without realizing that the relative level of autonomy that Shanghai has enjoyed is also a result of central policy," she said.

"The autonomy could be taken away at any moment. On a normal day, people in Shanghai are sipping coffee in the hipster part of the town, and they might have the illusion that they are in any large city in the world. That exception is always an illusion," she added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

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