gaslighting 101: shanghai hasn’t reopened because it was never locked down…

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.”

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rumor has it… the government had a hell of a night on the town

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。

a poetic primer for understanding these times

All that we do not know haunts us. In some sense, social media has only made us more aware that our knowledge about what is happening next door or in the next city is limited. Nevertheless, we still extrapolate feelings from posts and insinuate critique into memes. This means that we require a basic lexicon to decode texts that were intentionally written to avoid censorship. Currently circulating is a poem about the courage to write directly about what’s been happening. And yes, I’m aware that the poem has circulated anonymously. Translation, below:

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shenzhen covid update for inquiring minds

“What’s up in Shenzhen?” You and other inquiring minds want to know.

Well, for starters, we have a new conspiracy theory about how Shenzhen’s successfully prevented a massive omicron outbreak on the scale of Hong Kong and/or Shanghai.

Your curiosity gets the best of you and you impishly ask, “What’s the tea?”

I lean forward and whisper, “Apparently, the city’s zero-Covid strategy has served to cover-up the fact that Shenzhen was caught unprepared, just like Hong Kong and Shanghai. At the beginning of the outbreak, the city didn’t have enough quarantine centers to house all the positives, symptomatic and not. So instead of treating patients, they sent everyone home to wait it out, without ever releasing true statistics. The basis of this conjecture is the unstated question: how could Hong Kong and Shanghai have so many positives and Shenzhen not?”

And my voice is rising along with my excitement, “I mean, you can hear the rhetorical force of the conspiracy theory, which pivots on what the numbers mean. And let’s be real. Statistical abnormalities should be ringing our bells because so much of who we think we are is tied up in hypotheses about populations, which are in fact statistically imagined entities. So, to my mind, which is a curious mind, the reasoning behind this theory of what is actually happening is mischievous satirical impeccable. Especially, if your point of epistemological departure is that omicron spreads+government can’t be trusted. Which, who doesn’t believe?

Anyway, the post (which counts as rumor mongering within official social media, but that’s another story for another day) reads:

I finally understand, and here’s the story:
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yang qian early plays

By now you’ve figured out that this week, I’m organizing the blog. Kind of. Anyway, today’s post is a treat from years past, when Shenzhen was and was transitioning from being the world’s factory. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Yang Qian wrote plays about how dreams took root and reformed in the soil of the Special Zone. Crossroads, especially, gives insight into the lived contradictions of the 1990s, when Shenzhen was considered a city without culture, even as Neolithic sites were buried in the rush to the future. The plays included in Unclassifiable Dreams were translated and published as part of the 2008-2009 Foodscape project, which was funded by Pro Helvetia. (Just an aside, during the project, Swiss artists complained to artists from China and the US that arts funding in Switzerland was limited. In the language of China du web, we call that 烦而赛 or humble bragging. Sigh.) Enjoy:

Unclassifiable Dreams: Five Plays by Yang Qian.

Also, Divine Garbage a video from 2003, when the second line was still operational, Shekou was still a manufacturing hub and Fat Bird was an unregistered group of friends, who did guerrilla performances throughout the Special Zone (we never performed in Bao’an before its 2004 restructuring):

how do shenzheners map covid elsewhere?

A friend from northern China once said (and I’m paraphrasing a long ago memory of Shenzhen, circa 1995), “If you want to see Chinese culture, go to Beijing, Xi’an or Shanghai. Even Tibet has more culture than Shenzhen.”

Her pointed point was: if you’re doing cultural anthropology (and I was!), go to a Chinese city with actual culture. Even the ethnic minorities have culture. Shenzhen, not so much. In fact, she also explained that Taiwan felt more ‘Chinese’ than Shenzhen did. When asked to elaborate, she explained that in Taipei, she had been able to speak Mandarin. In contrast, in Guangdong it was difficult to find people who willingly spoke Mandarin, let alone fluently.

Of course, nearly thirty years (!!!) later, Shenzhen has come to represent China in ways that Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai do not. Moreover, Shenzhen is often held up as the most open of the first-tier four (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Shenzhen isn’t China’s past, my friends assure me, but its future, which is why, Shenzhen’s response to Covid-elsewhere is worth noting. How are Shenzheners positioning themselves and their city vis-a-vis perceived failures of Covid management in Shanghai?

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We Were Smart

So, in 2020, Chen Wenhui and I translated Li Yifan’s documentary, We Were SMART (杀马特我爱你). If you get a chance to watch the film, it provides insight into the 2000s, when a second generation of migrant workers came of age.

The film, with English subtitles, can be viewed on Danshi. If you’re interested in the filmmaker’s story, he gives an YiXi talk on Bili Bili (in Mandarin).

are you involuted?

The caption to the comic reads, “Comrade, wake up, you still have overtime to work.”

There is much talk of neijuan (内卷) or involution in Shenzhen and indeed throughout China. The conversation is so robust, it even made the New Yorker (Yi-Ling LIU, May 14, 2021). Liu explains that China’s “involuted” generation is overworked, burned out, and despairing that life will get any better. Instead, of seeing rewards at the end of their hard work, they’re seeing just more pointless work. Indeed, as the comic suggests, crashing is often the result of neijuan. In popular culture, many young people have expressed their discontent through tangping (躺平), which translates as “laying down” but resonates with what US Americans would call getting out of the rat race. The expression is so popular, Alibaba even came up with a tangping app, which promotes making money through a relaxed, enjoyable lifestyle.

Of course, the tangping app is itself a symptom of involution…

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voices from coronavirus@sz

A poem from a friend:

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And two other posts: Continue reading

who upholds the peace?

You may be aware that many in China are protesting Christmas because the country has its own traditions. In turn, the nativist logic behind the protests has shown up all sorts of contradictions. Exhibit A is an image and commentary from we chat: Continue reading