The banners went up at night on Easter Sunday, day 17 of Shanghai’s Wuhan-style total lockdown. Handwriting on sheets declared in Chinese “we are dying” and “oppose endless lockdown”, a very partial list of the unnecessarily dead draped around Huashan Lu. Another declared “content not available”, with an exclamation mark on a big red dot—how censored materials appear on Chinese social media.
The banners quickly went viral. The next day a post appeared on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, saying the creators of the banners had been detained, though they were reportedly allowed to return home after signing a statement. Their phones were confiscated and they are now likely to be charged with “provoking trouble”.
Online censorship of Shanghai’s 26 million people has been outpaced by networks of unfamiliar neighbours connecting for the first time to bulk purchase food. There have been complaints about mass-infecting PCR tests, of the dabai white hazmat-suited workers manhandling residents, of a lack of medication and food and of squalid quarantine camps. The complaints crop up everywhere before the big red “content unavailable” dot can erase them—screenshotted, downloaded, and reshared to millions of chats. Images of infants packed into cage-like cribs and a slaughtered puppy spread almost as instantly.
“I feel like there were signs” of China’s government becoming more hardline, says a Shanghainese curator speaking anonymously, adding that the imminent amendment of the national constitution will allow President Xi Jinping to serve an unprecedented third term. “Under China’s political framework, the voice of individuals is so quiet and insignificant. There’s no effective communication channel between the people and the government,” which “speaks a different kind of Mandarin” to the people. “It's official, and also conveys meanings beyond normal logic and semantics. Their language is full of slogans and catchwords. There's no reasoning, no evidence, no facts.”
With grocery shops closed, group buying from wholesalers quickly emerged as the primarily source of sustenance. The art world is among the well-stocked affluent, but many people are starving in Shanghai. Elderly people struggle with online payments; the poor cannot afford lockdown markups and bulk buys. The government sends out supplies, but pricier areas are deluged with excess while poorer areas of town report getting little more than rotting vegetables.
“We have been closed for over a month and it is unclear when we will be able to reopen and welcome guests,” says a downtown gallerist. “This lockdown affects mostly the Shanghai area and its art scene.” Adjusting programming and unable to ship works to art fairs, they have focused on contingencies. “I have confidence in a gradual recovery once things go back to normal. But in the short and mid-term it will be very complicated to plan things, especially if there will be intermittent lockdowns throughout the next few months,” they add.
Shanghai’s hard lockdown began on 1 April. Soft lock-ins and mass testing were rolled out throughout March, but most businesses including food delivery remained open. In early 2020, Shanghai’s non-essential businesses were closed but movements were largely unrestricted. Before, only the initial Wuhan emergency saw this level of rigid control; this year it has been deployed in Ruili and Xi’an cities and Jilin Province. Over 40 Chinese cities are currently under some form of lockdown, and Beijing grocery shelves have been stripped ahead of lockdown rumours in the national capital.
Over 500,000 Shanghai infections since late March have resulted in 138 Covid deaths, of which an overwhelming portion are unvaccinated elderly people. Meanwhile at least 155 fatalities have occurred due to lockdown—they include an off-duty nurse whose asthma went untreated and solitary elderly deaths intersperse with the suicides. In one instance, a 14-year old boy reportedly killed himself after he was left home alone with his parents in quarantine.
The policy sends all people who test positive for Covid to mass quarantine centres resembling prison camps. Open-floored factories, warehouses and convention centres cram in thousands of beds with zero privacy and often 24-hour glaring lights. Residents report that food is scarce and often rancid. Most facilities lack showers. The largest of these can hold over 50,000 people, and even the West Bund Art & Design Centre has been converted into a Covid centre.
“Every morning I wake up to news worse than yesterday,” says a Shanghai-based art professional. “Blame against the municipal government outlines the elephant in the room, which is a top-down systematic failure and the political undertone that is holding everyone hostage.” They worry that the lockdown will accelerate Shanghai’s isolation from the global art infrastructure.
Images emerged on 3 April of small children separated from parents for quarantine, culminating in an online petition for home quarantines. The national government responded to the outcry by taking over management of the lockdown, doubling down on mass quarantine centres. On 6 April, a puppy was beaten to death by a dabai as his owner was taken to quarantine, illustrating the complete absence of any pet protections.
On 15 April, police wearing Hazmat suits beat residents of the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park who were protesting against being evicted so their building could be converted into a quarantine centre. The next day, all 4,000 residents of a Beicai area compound were transported en masse to quarantine centres. In late April, green fencing was erected along some streets and at building entrances, in clear violation of safety codes. A fire broke out in one fenced in building, purportedly without casualties. The city more and more resembles an enormous prison.
There has been some merit to the zero-Covid approach, which provided a casualty-free reopening for two years via masking, testing, tracking and soft lockdowns. However, the scale and relentlessness, the ideological rhetoric, the indifference to human cost all too painfully echo the mass movements of the Maoist era. People have started calling the hazmatted dabai workers baiweibing (White Guards), like the red enforcers of the Cultural Revolution. Shanghai's citizens are angry and disillusioned. For four decades they have been told: follow the rules and enjoy prosperity—or at least safety. Avoid sex and politics and your art can be shown. That bargain has now been suspended, or upended. Even if things return to normal, normal cannot be trusted.