hallucinating in shanghai

The stories coming out of Shanghai are increasingly distressing. Thousands of people are being rounded up and forcibly moved to quarantine centers, which are still under construction. Once inside the centers, detainees are told that they are on their own until testing can be arranged because it takes two consecutive negatives to get out. Indeed, the situation is so fraught that it has brought the specters of Xinjiang and the Cultural Revolution into the conversation. Some have started commenting under pictures of the Big Whites (大白 nickname for those in hazmat suits), “the red guards have arrived!” Offline, the outraged assumption that Shanghai (SHANGHAI!) could be treated like Xinjiang is more vocal, and occasionally mentioned online. But I’ll get to that, below. There’s much to unpack in all of this, especially Xi Jinping’s fraught relationship with the CR, Xinjiang and, of course, Covid. After all, the 20th Party Congress will be held (presumably) some time in October, and Xi has hitched his coronation third term to zero-Covid. Today, however, I’m translating and commenting on a copy of a chat record that’s low key circulating on WeChat. I’ll be responding in the next post.


On Baidu, the above phrase is translated as, “I have a lot of work to do.” However, for Mandarin speakers, the linguistic link between Covid detention and the Xinjiang internment camps is explicit and this phrase is better translated as, “In order to be reformed through labor, I have a lot of work to do.” This is the last sentence included in a chat report from a detainee in a Shanghai Covid observation center.

Chez Shenzhen, the government made the earliest links between Covid surveillance and anti-terrorism in Xinjiang at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. A little over two years ago, when the first city lockdown was underway, for example, I asked are we all living in xinjiang? The prompt for the post was the ideological link drawn between compliance with metro surveillance protocols, the anti-terrorism campaign and checking for Covid. At the time, there was no zero-Covid propaganda and so anti-terrorism videos looped on Shenzhen public transportation. In the videos, only Xinjiang people (i.e terrorists) refused to cooperate with protocols. The ideological line was clear: only terrorists do no cooperate with the government because they are guilty. Ordinary people have nothing to fear from the surveillance apparatus, so cooperate and don’t be a terrorist.

Among Han people, the ideological link between cooperation (good guys) and non-compliance (terrorists) made in those long ago videos not only set the stage for zero-Covid protocols, but also distanced them from those protocols. After all, the terrorist was clearly muslim and thus, clearly outside the nation-state. In fact, the Xinjiang person’s existence was an explicit threat to the nation-state and so most Han saw anti-terrorist detentions as necessary and justified. Thus, the surprise and outrage at story’s end–why is this happening to me? (For an important account of what’s happening in Xinjiang check out Xinjiang Year Zero.)

Back to our translation, which begins in sarcasm and double entendres, “I couldn’t be better. Want to listen? Okay, I tell the story.” And here’s what they said:


“The night before yesterday at 11 pm, I was forcibly taken (拉走), and quickly arrived at the quarantine center. There were already several tens of buses lined up waiting. Everyone was wearing the same big white uniform, and waiting on the bus in an orderly manner. We waited from about 12 midnight until 3 am. There were old people who couldn’t hold it and wet their pants, there was also a grandpa whose heart couldn’t take it and he had to be given emergency medicine. So I got out of the bus to see how many buses there were.”

This is one of those key narrative moments. The story begins with the unity of the detainees and their detainers. Everyone is a Big White, everyone is working to end Covid. As we have seen in Shenzhen, compliance is a huge virtue among the middle classes. Indeed, many distinguished between the compliant (and therefore non-threatening) residents of formal settlements and the non-compliant (well, if not non-compliant, the dirty, chaotic and substandard) residents of Shatou. And Shanghai residents, by and large, identify with the middle class values of civil society because that (the underlying assumption) is how societies thrive. In the response post, I’ll be thinking about the implications that global capitalism is an alternative / supplement to Party rule, but for the moment it’s enough to emphasize that Shanghai and Shanghai people assumed that they were key figures in Chinese society, not only because of their economic contributions, but also because of their level of internationalization. They were a more civilized version of modern China. But I digress…

“I walked to the end of the alley, and discovered a majestic and powerful iron gate that blocked the road. So I peaked through a crack between the gate and the wall and it was like this:

“It turns out that the constructors of our great nation hadn’t yet built the shelter and it couldn’t be opened. So several tens of buses filled with positive friends happily sat in the bus to continue waiting. Although we didn’t talk with each other, nevertheless I think that in addition to being angry that our bladders and colons were filled to bursting, everyones’ hearts were filled with the angry sounds of the tell-off-the-government symphony.”

Those who have been following Shenzhen know the importance of “construction 建设” as an embodied metaphor for nationalist projects. In addition to the numerous “construction bureaus,” all levels of the state are busy constructing everything from houses and cities to socialism with Chinese characteristics. Indeed, “Constructing Socialism with Chinese characteristics (建设有中国特色的社会主义) is the ideological phrase that sutures the Xi Jinping project to the early years of Reform and Opening. So clearly, it’s not just the actual builders of the quarantine center who are ignoring the actual consequences of the policy, but also the leaders of the country who have pursued this policy without any thought to what happens after people have been rounded up and the city shut down. But back to our story:


“Time went by in a flash, and in the blink of an eye it was 5 a.m. The iron gate opened and the busses entered the construction site. Just like the country’s constructors, we ignored that the ground was covered in garbage, because hey, we could get off the bus, right? And I really wanted to use the toilet.

“Getting off the bus, I excitedly headed into the shed, where the interior design was truly moving. I was also surprised to discover that they still hadn’t gotten around to closing one of the walls on the second floor. Anyway, the sick friends started settling in.

“After fighting for a bed, blanket and pillow, I remembered that I had been holding a nighttime of piss. So I went to the bathroom. In a shelter for 1,000 people, there is only one bathroom with only one toilet that doesn’t flush. Everyone has to use it and there’s no water to flush. It overflowed. Because of incomplete construction, I suspect that the water mains haven’t been connected. It was too beautiful, so I won’t post a picture.

“After seeing the bathroom, I felt better. I thought, whatever, I’ll eat and drink less, and take advantage of this diet opportunity. But breakfast arrive punctually according to schedule.

“But there’s dust everywhere, a half constructed site…it’s not a place for healthy people, let alone a place for sick people to get better.

“Then…a big white passed by.

“Someone asks, ‘Are there janitors to sweep up?’

“Big White, ‘NO!’ [And if you’ve ever heard a frazzled Chinese worker answer ‘没有‘ when both the worker and the person who asked the question know that the answer should be ‘有,‘ well then you can guess the tone of voice.]

“Patient, ‘Then what should be done?’

“Big White, ‘Do it yourself!’

“Patient, ‘…so where are the brooms?’

“Big White, ‘没有!’

“So then lunch. Which was left in piles on the ground.”


“That afternoon, a worker finally arrived. This is what they said, ‘If you have a low grade fever, cough or headache, please don’t come to us for help. We don’t have any medicine. If you have brought your own medicine, then you should take it. If you don’t have any medicine, then drink water and wait to get better. If you have a high fever, then our protocol is to dial 120 and request an ambulance to take you away. Remember, you are here for observation, not for medical care. In addition, don’t ask if there’s going to be a corona test, when the test will take place, or when you will be released. Right now, all we’re doing is bringing you in. What the next step will be, we don’t know either. Once our leaders have held a meeting to decide and told us, then we’ll tell you.’

“A little later, Shanghai once again broadcast that it was enthusiastically preventing the pandemic and striving to achieve zero-Covid. So I wrote in the comments section, “Do you dare open the comments section?!

“Dinner arrived. It was great, two meat dishes and two veggies, well except for the chicken wing was spoiled and the rice was grey. Otherwise, perfect. “

And then the story turns into a lament as the narrator realizes that the borders of the nation state have shifted–within their very own body–and they hadn’t noticed.

“I’ve never been so disappointed by the Shanghai government. This time it’s a hallucination. How many years have I paid Shanghai taxes, which probably didn’t reach the hands of the Shanghai government, all for the dog. I stayed in my house, went to work, took care of my child, made food, oversaw online classes. I didn’t do anything even remotely illegal, how did I become positive!

“Just don’t tell my mother, you can tell anyone else. Let every one see, this is how that dog-fucked government treats ordinary people.

“I’m off to fight for resources. We even have to get water for ourselves.

“I have a lot of reform labor to do (我劳改要做的工作很多的).”

3 thoughts on “hallucinating in shanghai

  1. Sorry to see you buying into the US driven Xinjiang genocide, concentration camp and forced labour hoax, for which there is no reliable evidence at all, just the ravings of Adrian Zenz and a few expats bought and paid for. Plenty of debunkings on Youtube particularly of the ASPI report by Jaq James, worthwhile contributions from Brian Berletic (New Atlas), Reports on China, Barretts, and others.

    • Hi Walt, the US position on Xinjiang and what is happening in Xinjiang are related in complicated ways. The fact that the US uses Xinjiang to call for human rights without doing anything to end what it acknowledges is highly problematic. So on the one hand, saying that there are human rights abuses happening in Xinjiang. Then, on the other hand, not doing anything about it. This reduces the crisis to a political issue in the US. But reducing the issue to an anti-China meme in the US, doesn’t mean there aren’t abuses happening in Xinjiang. And I agree, it is often difficult to take a critical position vis-a-vis China precisely because of how these comments are misrepresented and misused in English language contexts. But again, this complexity does not mean that Xinjiang is not under military rule.
      Second point, this is a translation. The connections between Xinjiang and Shanghai are being made on Chinese social media. This raises all sorts of questions, such as: how much do Chinese people know about what’s happening in Xinjiang? How do they know it? And, why are these comparisons coming up now? In other words, what’s happening in Xinjiang is part of the contemporary Chinese worldview. It hovers in uncomfortable ways, only becoming visible in extreme situations.

      • Third, (sorry I pressed enter before I had finished my reply) the logic of your statement includes an unstated assumption: if US accounts of what is happening in Xinjiang is simply propaganda, then accounts of what is happening in Shanghai are also US propaganda. And thus the implied conclusion of your statement.is: Fourth, Mary Ann O’Donnell, you are a dupe of the US government.
        So Walt, I can only conclude that you are not “sorry” for your comment, merely being passive aggressive.

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