For one day, Chinese Internet users were victorious against the censors. On Friday, April 22, a six-minute video titled “Voices of April” went viral. It showed footage of an empty Shanghai and audio recordings of some of the most desperate moments of the past month of lockdown.
“Jieli,” or “Pass on the baton,” Internet users wrote as they posted the video in various iterations to evade censors — as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), embedded in a QR code, on mirror sites, or with the footage swapped out for a government news briefing or images of SpongeBob Square Pants.
As soon as one version of the video was taken down, new ones appeared, overwhelming censors. Weeks of anger and frustration over food shortages and heavy-handed covid controls were channeled into keeping the video alive online.
“It surprised me on so many levels. I’ve never seen such an expression of dissatisfaction,” said Eric Liu, who was previously a content moderator for Sina Weibo, China’s microblog site, and now works at China Digital Times monitoring censorship in China.
China’s strict zero-covid policy, once praised for keeping the country’s death rate among of the lowest in the world, now faces scrutiny as millions of residents chafe under paralyzing covid controls while authorities battle outbreaks of the omicron coronavirus across the country.
For many inside and outside of China, videos like Voices of April are one of the few windows into actual conditions under lockdown as state media seek to paint government covid efforts as effective and necessary. As an unexpected stage for virtual protest, the video is also a reminder of the online activism that still survives in China’s heavily censored information environment.
It is one of many posts that lived briefly online before being erased. Others include footage of health workers breaking into residents’ homes to take them to quarantine centers, of police clashing with citizens and of residents banging pots and pans in protest of food shortages or musicians playing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from the musical Les Misérables.
For Fiona Yu, a 27-year-old freelance designer living in Xuhui in Shanghai, such content is her only real gauge of what is happening in her city. “At best, people can guess what’s going to happen to them based on what is posted online about other neighborhoods,” she said.
On April 21, police knocked on Yu’s door to tell her that residents between the ages of 18 and 65 in her compound who had recently tested negative for coronavirus were being transferred to other provinces to quarantine. Neighbors who left told Yu they were given diapers for the almost six-hour nonstop bus ride to Anhui province.
Emboldened by the video and all the attention it was receiving, Yu also wrote about her situation. She posted on Weibo and WeChat,“Here we can’t even be sure we can take care of the elderly and children by our side. What about when we’re gone? The neighborhood committee says they don’t know. The police say they don’t know. The CDC says they don’t know. Please tell me, who knows.”
“People kept posting and sharing [Voices of April] because we all felt a sense of resistance,” she said. “But I also thought, what use is this? Our voices are so small.” Later the policy was changed, and Yu did not have to relocate and she deleted her post.
The ‘relay’ to avoid censorship
The Voices of April video, posted on a media sharing platform on the evening of April 21, starts with a news conference from March 15 in which an official from Shanghai’s epidemic prevention and control center promised the city would not be put under lockdown. It moves on to recordings of stranded delivery drivers, community workers, a mother seeking help for her child and a shocked bystander watching a dog be beaten to death by a health worker. Other snippets include residents thanking health workers and sharing food with neighbors.
The video goes viral the afternoon of April 22 as Internet users, especially those in Shanghai, share it on social media platforms. As censors remove it, more people began to post it repeatedly, beginning the so-called “relay.” New versions are created to evade the censors.
Leaked directives from the Beijing office of the Cyberspace Administration of China order social media platforms to “perform a comprehensive clean-up of video, screenshots, and other content” related to Voices of April by 12:30 a.m. By midmorning April 23, almost all traces of it have been erased from Chinese social media.
The footage undermines official portrayals of a decisive and valiant effort of citizens, health workers, volunteers and officials.
“I’ve seen too many voices online disappear. With time, I’ve become desensitized but there are some things that happened that shouldn’t have. Since they did, they shouldn’t be forgotten,” the video’s producer, a filmmaker in Shanghai who identified himself only as Cary, wrote on WeChat.
Inspired by Voices of April, one resident in Shanghai’s Jing’an district recently released a rap song he had been working on since the beginning of April, posting it on Instagram and YouTube where it would not be censored.
“It’s pathetic that these memories and experiences are being wiped from the Chinese Internet,“ he said, declining to give his name out of security concerns. “People can be powerless but they shouldn’t be ignorant.”
Yuan Wei, an artist and poet in Hangzhou, responded to censorship of the Voices of April video by creating a piece of art, a hectograph print made by drawing on a gelatin pad, using the text of the video. “It’s about remembering the things people have experienced, their feelings and the words they said,” she said.
The effort to preserve Voices of April harks back to a similar moment in 2020 when social media platforms censored an article about a Wuhan doctor named Ai Fen who was punished for alerting colleagues of a SARS-like virus in December 2019. Internet users created more than 100 versions of it translated into Morse code, Braille and even emoji. People started to call the tactic “jieli,” or “relay.”
“It’s an invitation for others to join, almost like a call for action,” said Yang Guobin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania studying social movements and digital culture. “The Chinese public — especially the online public — has always been actively engaged despite censorship and sometimes because of censorship.”
Such outpourings over social issues still surface even as the space for debate in China has shrunk. In 2020, censors were also overwhelmed by outrage over the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.
In Shanghai, people have found creative ways to express themselves. The artist Yang Xiao combined more than 600 propaganda phrases into a nonsensical script in the format of a covid public service announcement. When played over a loudspeaker in his neighborhood, no one seemed to notice.
Another video, “Shanghai Late Spring,” compiled footage posted online of leaking quarantine centers, residents clashing with police and health workers attempting to drag them away, set to an English punk song.
While the Voices of April video was gone within 24 hours despite people’s best efforts, Yang said its influence will live on.
“This moment will become part of that collective memory, the creative strategies used again and again. People will do it again,” he said.