As a young tech professional in Shanghai, Daniel was unprepared for the April 1 Covid-19 lockdown that barred him from leaving his building, forcing him to rely on sparse government rations and a group chat on a mobile app for essential supplies.
The WeChat group of about 200 residents in his compound allows him to make group buys of meat, vegetables and rice – and gives him a ringside view of growing frustration over the city’s handling of the pandemic, with increasing expressions of dissent online.
“People are angry, and questioning the authorities for limiting their freedom of speech. This is new in China,” said Daniel, 31, who asked that his last name not be used.
“People use all sorts of code words to refer to the government and to political leaders, or to something that was censored, including videos being blocked,” added Daniel, who has lived in the financial hub for nearly three years.
Chinese authorities could not be reached for comment.
Shanghai’s 25 million residents have lost income, been separated from family and struggled to meet basic needs, as authorities pursue a zero-Covid strategy of eradicating the virus neighbourhood by neighbourhood with strict lockdowns.
There is an unprecedented flood of complaints even on heavily censored social media platforms, where residents in China’s most populous and wealthiest city use euphemisms and post pictures upside down to get around censors.
While many critical posts have been quickly deleted, some have survived, including a crowd-sourced spreadsheet documenting deaths from the strict Covid-19 prevention measures that have kept people from getting medical care for other illnesses.
The spreadsheet has been deleted from Chinese social media, but Shanghai resident Linette Lim said it is still accessible via virtual private networks (VPN) that anonymise a user’s Internet Protocol address and help bypass firewalls.
“I’ve not seen such levels of social media activism, and a concerted effort in defying censorship,” said Lim, 31, who uses a VPN to access banned sites such as Facebook and Twitter and often posts translations of WeChat messages on them.
“It is very hard to gauge what is going on when we are all trapped in our apartments,” said Lim, who has lived in Shanghai for nearly four years.
“I use WeChat to see what’s posted in my friends’ circles to corroborate experiences, and to bear witness to what is going on.”
From the first lockdowns to limit the spread of the coronavirus in early 2020, people across the world have taken to social media to share information, plead for hospital beds, oxygen tanks and vaccines – and express their anger.
Many governments have passed laws to criminalise posting information deemed to be critical of authorities, and issued orders to social media platforms to take down such content.
In China, which has long censored speech and expression online, Shanghai residents have posted videos of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, a protest anthem from “Les Miserables”, which was censored during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
Last week, a six-minute video titled “Sounds of April”, comprising audio clips of Shanghai residents criticising lockdown conditions and appealing for help, was taken down as it began to go viral.
It was reposted repeatedly in various forms, then made into non fungible tokens (NFTs) – digital assets that exist on a blockchain, which means they cannot be deleted.
Others have posted videos of filthy quarantine camps, and of people protesting as they were told to evacuate their apartments so they could be converted into quarantine sites.
All such posts have been taken down, said Rogier Creemers, an assistant professor in Modern Chinese Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
“There is dissent, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re revolutionaries. They want food, they’re fed up with the Covid strategy. They’re not calling for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
“Platforms are already on a tight leash, and content regulation has been getting stricter,” he added.
China’s regulators have, over the past year, reined in internet giants in areas from how they use algorithms to drive their businesses to limiting the time young users spend online.
On Monday, authorities in Shanghai said they would reserve the harshest Covid-19 restrictions for smaller areas around confirmed cases, raising hopes of some respite.
Officials had earlier sealed off entrances of public housing blocks, and a video circulating online showed residents protesting from their balconies as workers set up fencing closing off buildings and entire streets.
Lim said the lockdown had been difficult for people in her neighbourhood who have not been able to join the group buys.
“Elderly people without mobile phones have to rely on family members or neighbours for help; the neighbourhood committee leader goes door-to-door to help some of them,” she said.
Daniel, who lives alone, said the lockdown has been tough on his mental health but it has also brought him closer to his neighbours.
“Living in a big city like Shanghai means you might never meet your neighbours even though you live next to each other,” he said.
“All of a sudden, this lockdown has put everyone in the same WeChat group and people have started to communicate with each other and share news, no matter if it is good news or bad news, or anger,” he added.