That’s what they’re going with? This is a popular gloss on the press conference that didn’t announce that the city had reopened. Instead, government spokespeople performed a master class in gas lighting.
The past two months are being presented as if neighborhood offices acted independently of the municipal government and Sun Chunlan 孙春兰 never came to take charge of the pandemic; and indeed, unlike in Wuhan and Hong Kong, Sun’s tenure in Shanghai was brief and remarkably not lauded. There is no official position on the not-lockdown, which reads like blaming the victim with Chinese characteristics. So to speak.
In response to the blatant buck-passing, testimonial videos about what happened during the lockdown have been posted. In addition, stories about how the Shanghai government has not taken responsibility for the recent lockdown are also circulating. The pleasure of these second category of stories is that they show an actual representative of the Party and government telling the truth. Below I’ve translated one of those stories that I’m calling, “Speechless 无语 in Shanghai.”
It’s true, unlike the 2020 lockdown when the government subsidized the lockdown, during the 2022 lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere (Shenzhen, for example) the actual costs of game of germs are being passed on to ordinary citizens and entrepreneurs. Owners of cars that were parked in commercial lots, for example, are being held responsible for fees accrued during the lockdown, fees which be over 3,000 rmb. Indeed, one of the jokes currently circulating describes post-lockdown accounting for mass testing as a case of different government bureaus passing the buck:
[The government went out for a night on the town.] The medical insurance department believed that the finance bureau would pick up the tab, while the financial bureau assumed that the medical insurance department would foot the bill. The two sat down for dinner, ordering wine, dishes and escorts. They uncorked bottles of foreign spirits, sang karaoke, had massages and paid for sex. Indeed, they ordered everything on the menu. When it came time to settle the account, however, the finance bureau slipped out the door and the medical insurance department pretended to be drunk. And this is how the absurdity ended. 医保以为财政请客，财政以为医保请客，二人落座后加酒加菜要三陪，开洋酒、点歌、按摩、打炮......所有的项目都点了，拿出店家账单找人结账的时候，财政要遛，医保装醉，荒唐的一幕就这样结束了。
Yesterday evening between 7 to 9, depending on the housing estate, Shanghai people took to their balconies and clanged on pots and pans to demand food. The event, “Music Party” seems to have been widespread, with organizers making and circulating individualized posters, telling neighborhood participants when their group would be playing. “Music Party” allowed Shanghai residents to tactically fill the city with alternative sounds–sounds that were meaningful to them, rather than the sounds of impersonal management.
As Jing Wang observed, sound has become a critical feature of locked-down Shanghai. Robotic dogs and drones carry loudspeakers through neighborhoods, instructions blaring. On repeat. Everyday. In a city where isolation has become the new normal and cell phones mediate intimacy, the materiality of a common voice (or clamor) shared across time and space allows for the mutual recognition that makes us human. Videos of the clanging and robotic dog (and yes the ‘bitch’ speaks with a female voice) as well as some of the posters, below.
It turns out that Covid-19 is good to think if your goal is to understand ‘China’ as imagined, perceived and, of course, enforced. (Winning?) After all, even if there are no countries outside are heads, nevertheless, there are test stations, checkpoints, police, and all sorts of social monitoring. Moreover, how different groups–both at home and abroad–are responding to the lockdown shows up interesting aspects of my experience in Shenzhen. So, I’m providing a round-up of some of the Covid related blogs, essays and books that I’ve been reading to embed Shenzhen’s experience into national and international discourses about biological governance, moral geography and new forms of self expression. And yes, they’re all over the place because we don’t really know how the ground has shifted. Moreover, I find comparison and contrast both necessary and useful because the intellectual and political challenge is to provide rich, on the ground accounts of lived experience within and against political-economic systems that are (to use a harsh neologism) always already glocal–the suffering caused by Covid-19 is universal, but responses to and cultural expressions of pain have been highly specific.
The cartoon caption which comes via the 2022 Shanghai lockdown reads, “Who dares call a meal with pig feet and bear’s claw anything less than a feast? You can’t hide that we’re living in a flourishing age.”
Aves (小鸟文学) has published a special edition, which has collected many accounts of the Shanghai lockdown, including poetry, essays and camp (方舱) diaries. Many of these pieces have been previously published via WeChat and weibo, but. By bringing the works together in one place, Aves has taken an important step in giving a more comprehensive form to the lockdown. These are not individualized twitterings; they form a chorus.
Question du jour: how do we translate ‘社会面清零’? As conventionally used, my sense is that it means something like ‘zero-Covid in society,’ with the unspoken predicate ‘because all the positives have been locked away.’ It’s the unspoken half of the phrase–the unspoken threat of violence–that has me thinking we should translate directly–社会面 means “social aspect’ and 清零 means ‘clearance’ or ‘reset.’ I’m hearing that the people with the most power in Shanghai today are security guards, representatives from neighborhood offices (居委会), and the ‘big whites (大白)’ whose presence has become equated with arbitrary violence and detention. Apparently, these are the people enforcing zero-Covid, while most low and mid-level cadres are being replaced with people who do not question the policy. This means that when Shanghai re-opens (whenever and however), there will be a new political hierarchy in place, in addition to the completely devastated economic situation. So, why not be translation literalists (in this particular case), and call what’s happening in Shanghai a ‘social reset’?
Today, two videos are circulating on WeChat, one “四月之声 [April Voices]” is a delicate and relentless compilation of the Shanghai crisis through telephone calls for help that remain unanswered. As one of the voices says, “I’m sorry teacher, there’s nothing I can do.” The second, “2022 上海晚春 [Late Spring in Shanghai, 2022]” is much more direct–scenes of violence put to the nihilistic, “Cheer Up London” by the Slaves. Both videos are worth taking the time to view because although their aesthetics are very different, they make the same, chilling point: Shanghai is violently divided and the party and the government (those who should be trusted) are not backing down .
Update: yesterday, all day Shanghai people continuously re-uploaded “April Voices” and the authorities continuously took it down. I has been an ongoing 24-hour battle for the right of ordinary people to tell their stories.
I first saw the chat record in a chat group,, dated April 16. Two days later, I saw it in my moments in a circulating WeChat post. The group leader said, “I’ve received an urgent notification from the top, everyone in the building is required to go down stairs for a corona test. Please respond with whether or not your willing to go downstairs.” He followed with his response, “unwilling.” It was followed by 50+ “unwillings.” The chat leader then said, “Thank you everyone. There have been enough responses. I’ll go negotiate with them.“ After three thank you emogis, he added. “Some leaders notified the neighborhood office at 5:45 p.m, to have us all go downstairs at 6:00. The teachers in the community office are helpless, so don’t blame them. Many of them only get 6 or 4 hours of sleep a night.” The same day that I saw the circulating WeChat post, I also saw a series of “will not participate in any more corona tests,” circulating on TikTok post, with music.
When I speak with U.S. Americans about China’s commitment to zero-Covid, I find myself comparing it to north American support for second amendment rights. We are no longer talking about a policy that is or is not working, but rather about a belief that the country itself is in danger. In China, the central government is acting as if any form of living with Covid will harm the country more than disrupting daily life for millions of people; and many agree. Similarly, the NRA acts as if the foundations of U.S. American democracy will be permanently damaged by background checks on people who want to purchase guns; and many agree. In both cases, what seems from the outside as an irrational escalation of commitment to an outdated policy, from the inside looks like a fight to maintain an imperiled way of life.