First, Xi’an and then Shenzhen, now Shanghai and Jilin. Although if you’ve been following the covid situation in Shanghai, odds are that’s how you’ve heard about the covid situation in Jilin–as an addendum, a postscript, a by the way this also happened elsewhere throwaway line at the end of a news report. From what I can gather, the Shanghai government has lost control of the covid situation and the military police 武警 have been called in to restore order. I have seen pictures of infants who have been separated from their parents, sleeping five or six to a crib; I have seen video clips of people breaking through cordons, although it is unclear where they are going; I have seen snapshots of international brand shopping bags, (including Maotai), hanging from doorknobs in compliance with the delivery of corona self-test kits to families, and; I have seen seen videos of the arrival of military police troupes dressed up in hazmat suits. As for Jilin, I haven’t seen that much. Apparently, the province’s major (Changchun and Jilin) and minor cities are in the “development stage” of the outbreak, which means it’s spreading. I’ve also read that there are huge numbers of asymptomatic cases and that the cold weather (I’ve seen pictures of workers bundled up in winter coats beneath their hazmat suits, dodging snowflakes as they motorbike to their next station) make it difficult to conduct tests and deliver food.
Here’s the rub: I have limited means to evaluate what’s happening in Shenzhen, let alone cities that I haven’t visited or only infrequently visit. How can I evaluate what these unknowable events mean for me personally, Shenzhen specifically, and China more generally? So that’s what today’s post is about: my experience of the Chinese virtual public sphere.
During Shenzhen’s lockdown, I have been positioned to interpret WeChat and weibo posts because my connection to the city provides alternative means to confirm stories. I can read maps within and against ongoing social policy shifts; I have visited (indeed lived in) sites (like Shazui and Xiasha) that have been under the strictest lockdowns, and; I am based in Shekou, which continues to produce (some) explicitly critical public accounts of zero-Covid (in addition to many personal posts and so many gratitude videos). My long-term physical embedding in Shenzhen has meant that I daily receive hundreds of posts about Shenzhen from different perspectives on a variety of topics. It also means that I can ask friends what’s happening in their community and larger neighborhood to confirm the information in virtual news. Even when they haven’t personally witnessed events, these friends are also embedded in community and neighborhood WeChat circles, providing context for evaluating the relative “truth content” of posts.
Of course, the major limit to my knowledge of what’s unfolding in Shenzhen is the lack of trustworthy third-party news report. My friends and I aren’t witnessing and documenting what’s happening everywhere throughout Shenzhen and I don’t have access to centralized accounts that on-the-ground workers are submitting up line through the public security and health bureaucracy. I suspect they’re collecting different kinds of information (who’s not compliant versus who’s infected, for example), but I don’t know if information is shared between these two systems. I suspect they’re not sharing information simply because I have submitted the same data to many different bureaus in the Shenzhen municipal apparatus, and none of them seem to have access to the original data which I registered with the Shenzhen police bureau.
My knowledge of Shanghai and Jilin is even more limited than my knowledge about Shenzhen, both by numbers of friends in and with contact to lockdown and quarantine sites and by the kinds of information currently circulating on my social media; most is second-hand knowledge and there are few channels that I completely trust. That said, my inclination is to believe the worst and imaginatively construct scenarios based on my Shenzhen experience. This is hardly reliable interpretation, but as its the best I’ve got, I keep moving forward, refining my interpretive skills and, when in doubt, vigilantly doubting the news in all its forms, official and unofficial.
Officially, Chinese media is the Party’s “throat and tongue 喉舌”–it’s job is to report the news from the Party’s perspective and that perspective is infamously “report the happy, not the unhappy 报喜不报忧.” WeChat and weibo are caught up in this information regime because anything that is published in China is considered to have been vetted by censorship algorithms, which can be unknowingly triggered. This means critical posts are crafted to slip past this algorithms, but it also means much does not get reported. It means that it is difficult to evaluate any–official news reports included–reports. It also explains the ongoing emphasis of reporters that they had visited the scene of a news event and/or had interviewed people connected with the event. In this regime, personal experience and testimony have a particular (emphasis on particular as meaning specific) resonance: “reliable 靠谱” accounts can only be had through limited personal experiences. We know that the news has been edited, but we do not know what unhappy news has been cut out to better highlight the happy. However, the intent of official news is to insure that people continue to trust the Party and the government because everything is (will be) stable.
However, while it is clear that unofficial news is calling for help, it is often difficult to know how to respond to these accounts, other than sympathetically forwarding them. Indeed, many unofficial and viral accounts of covid policies on the ground are explicit calls for help–medical help is required, food hasn’t been delivered, businesses are going bankrupt, children have been separated from the caregivers, and the police have been using force to insure compliance with policy… But these accounts are virtual and often encountered after the fact. Moreover, these are just the accounts that have slipped past local social media groups to reach me in Shenzhen. I suspect–no I worry–that things are much worse on the ground. I fear that if one death has been reported, there have been / will be more simply because the system is that huge and glitches unfold in real time via physically located communities and bodies. In the absence of reliable news, it becomes difficult to distinguish between lockdown and crackdown, or if some parts of Shanghai are locked down, while others face crackdown. Significantly, unofficial accounts from Shanghai are reaching national and international audiences, Jilin not so much, and of course information from Xinjiang and Tibet remains tightly controlled.
In other words, if this is happening (and what this is hovers in between virtual reports and my imagined scenarios) in Shanghai, what measures are being / will be taken in smaller cities and rural areas, where the likelihood of alternative accounts getting out are unlikely, not only because of censorship, but also because of the virtual public organization of concern?
Other, offline conversations hover in the background of my virtual world. However, while my offline conversations feel more solid and more trustworthy than my online exchanges, nevertheless, they also feel smaller and more ephemeral that the virtual China that I have constructed in my mind.
And that’s the thought du jour: my ability to be concerned about Shanghai and my relative indifference to Jilin province are more likely social symptoms than they are personal sentiments. I am connected to Shanghai (through stories, history, friends, professional itineraries and social media) in ways that I am not connected to Jilin, and so I receive information about Shanghai from multiple sources, which allows for some kind of evaluation of what is happening in one of China’s most important cities. In contrast, I have to conduct online searches to learn about Jilin. In turn, this means I am better situated to follow-up on my Shanghai concerns, acting in ways that deepen my relationship with the city and possibly help an actual person or feline, while I merely mention Jilin in passing. And Jilin, it goes without saying (and on Chinese social media we do not mention, but nevertheless imagine) that Jilin is much better off than Xinjiang or Tibet.