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The censorship of Shanghai citizens in lockdown sparks an uproar on Chinese social media

A censored poster composed of images taken from “Voices of April”. 404 is error code when content is removed or not accessible. Image via China Digital Times.

A six-minute video on the lockdown in Shanghai titled “Voices of April” went viral and sparked a rare showing of large-scale online protests after the Chinese censor handed down a comprehensive content removal order on April 22, 2022. 

The video is a compilation of more than 20 audio clips from press conferences, street committees, truck drivers, quarantine workers, emergency hotline, and Shanghai residents who suffered from food shortages and separations with or loss of family members. The video shows the black-and-white skyline and empty streets of Shanghai since the lockdown began in early April

Many of the audio clips have been distributed on social media but have vanished or submerged in the timeline. The creator of the video, who uses the username Strawberry Fields Forever, published his work on WeChat on April 22, writing that he wanted to keep the record of these voices in an objective manner.

Here is a version on Youtube with English transcription added by China Digital:

As the video went viral, the Cyberspace Administration stepped in and ordered a comprehensive takedown of the video and its related contents on the same night. 

The massive deletion then triggered an explosion of rage followed by a large-scale redistribution of the video. Netizens circumvented censorship by uploading the videos across different platforms, embedding the six minutes in other videos, juxtaposing the audio onto other videos, using QR codes to share video links, and more

The audio clips have even been turned into black-and-white drawings (by Yuan Wei via Facebook):

A drawing of “Voices of April” circulated on WeChat. (via Facebook). Used with permission.

Many exclaimed that the scale of circumvention was similar to the distribution relay after the death of medical doctor Li Wenliang during the Wuhan lockdown in 2020.

One widely circulated analysis claimed that the video was viewed over 100 million times by 23:30 pm on April 22, and it has continued spreading via different versions and channels since then. Eventually, even the Chinese word, 四月 (April), was temporarily blocked to curb the distribution. 

Under pressure, the creator of the video urged other netizens to stop the distribution, saying: “I don’t wish this video to be distributed in the directions I don’t want. I hope everyone stops sharing, or please ask people you know to stop sharing.”

As the video was replaced by content deletion notifications across various Chinese social media platforms, an outpouring of anger has been directed at the censorship authorities. The public sentiment is best reflected by the following widely shared poem written by Weibo user @MareNubiumyoung:

Delete the true voices, but preserve the lying reports
Muffle the mouths that speak, cover the ears that listen

They’re ants, or mustard seeds, or political symbols, but never are they human

What gets put onstage is the praise, the gratitude, the peace

What gets buried is the sobbing, the helplessness, the blood – Translated by Chinese Digital Times

The majority of Chinese netizens simply could not understand why people’s voices were suppressed in a manner. Here is a typical question raised on Weibo:

我不懂上海那个视频为什么要被删掉 我看到身边的上海人每天抢菜在家办公 在这种恶劣的大环境中生存 听到这些声音我觉得很悲伤 这个视频我个人觉得没有任何敏感内容或者煽动情绪的嫌疑 只是让人看到了真实的上海 不再是每天热搜上挂着的数字 如果这样的视频都要全网封杀的话 我只能归结于心虚 

I don’t understand why they had to delete the Shanghai video. I have bore witness to what had happened to my friends in Shanghai – they had to struggle for food everyday. When listening to these voices that reflect the adverse living conditions, I just feel sad. I don’t see any sensitive content nor incitement in them. They reflect the real Shanghai, not just in terms of numbers. If such a video has to be wiped out completely from the Chinese network, the motivation can only be a covering up of guilt.

But a few pro-government commentators jumped in and labeled the video a “Colour revolution” aimed at changing the Chinese regime. Pro-Beijing Taiwanese singer Huang An, for example, wrote on Weibo:

昨天微信朋友圈都刷屏了,都是为了某段视频被和谐看不到。

什么视频这么抢手?我看了,六分多钟的视频都在讲上海疫情,我看了两分钟吧,立刻心生警觉:靠,这套路太熟悉了,颜色革命呀!

剪辑一堆人的抱怨声,视频制作者没露面、也不解说,这是最危险的做法,刻意带风向、表面上好像很客观,骨子里就是假正义、真分化。

Yesterday, friend circles on WeChat are sharing the same item because a video was censored. 
What kind of video had gone so viral? I watched it. Over six minutes of video on the pandemic outbreak in Shanghai. After watching for two minutes, I was alert: WTF, this is such a familiar form — it’s Color Revolution!

A compilation of whining. The producer did not show up and did not explain. This is the most dangerous presentation with an intention to channel [the opinion]. It looks objective but full of a fake sense of justice that intends to divide. 

But very few buy the conspiracy theory this time. Instead, many rebuked and mocked the political label:

这都能扯颜色革命,外部势力,那人民应该怎么表达自己的声音呢?视频内容一不反动,二不虚构,现在已经2022年了,不是一删了之能骗就骗的年代,自信点吧。

How could this be linked to the Color Revolution and foreign forces? If that’s the case, how could people express themselves? There is nothing reactionary about the video, no fabricated element at all. We are in 2022, censorship and lies won’t work. Where’s [our country’s] confidence?

In response to the incident, Hu Xijin, a leading commentator from state-owned Global Times, took a less politically charged position to ease the tension:

封控久了,上海人有一些怨气,需要有释放的渠道。全国其他地方的人们也有焦虑,同样需要释放出来。…

网络管理者删帖,不意味着各地政府不重视意见。恰恰相反,在中国互联网上表达意见,比在西方国家抱怨管用得多。中国的实情经常是这样的:一边删帖,政府一边关注帖子的内容和传递的情绪,改进的努力会随之而来。西方的情况则是,表达不满往往可以随便说,但基本没人听,说了也白说。

Some Shanghainese are resentful as they were locked up for quite a lengthy period of time. They need channels to express their grievances. In other parts of the country, people have the same anxiety and they also need to release their feelings. …

Internet administrators delete content, but it does not mean that the government does not respect people’s opinions. On the contrary, expressing opinions on the Chinese Internet is much more useful than in Western countries. In China, very often the governments would pay attention to the content and the sentiment of the posts that they delete. Then they would follow up and improve accordingly. While in the West, people are free to express their discontent. But no one would listen to them. It is useless.

The most popular response to Hu’s comment is:

让人说话,天塌不下来

Let people speak, the heavens won’t collapse

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