In a news conference held on 15 March 2022, Shanghai city officials told reporters that ‘there’s no need to lock down the city’. Thirteen days later, on 28 March 2022 officials announced a five day lockdown of Shanghai, China’s biggest financial hub. Many of the city’s residents prepared a week or two weeks’ worth of groceries and medical supplies. No one had foreseen this would turn into a sixty-five day city-wide lockdown. Horror stories quickly began to emerge — unable to get food or medicine, desperate and angry residents shared their experiences online. Many who caught COVID or became close contacts of those who caught it, were forcefully evicted from their homes, and put into makeshift quarantine facilities, some without heating or running water. Shanghai was not the only city that had to endure harsh lockdown measures, millions in China’s other cities have undergone similar or even longer confinement.
One year later, as China turned its back from its iron fisted zero-COVID policy, traumatic memories of lockdowns, mandatory quarantines, and medics in white hazmat suits were quickly smothered by nauseating celebrations of the ‘magnificent, glorious and infallible’ Communist Party of China and its ‘outstanding and decisive victory in containing the epidemic’. Here at The China Story, we commemorate the first year anniversary of the Shanghai Lockdown by publishing a series of translations of letters sent to a popular Chinese language podcast StochasticVolatility 随机波动. Some of these letters were read out loud by the show’s hosts, three female media professionals Zhang Zhiqi, Fu Shiye and Leng Jianguo. Their voices as well as the individual voices behind these letters served as a source of warmth and comfort during those long days of isolation and chaos. The letters featured here also represent voices of what scholar and creator of The China Story Geremie Barmé calls ‘The Other China‘, a ‘China of humanity and decency, of quiet dignity and unflappable perseverance.’
Dialectical Thinking and Genuine Concern Are All I have
Translated with an introduction by Huang Zichu
This letter, only slightly abridged, represents the view of a Shanghainese living overseas to the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai. The author jokingly adopts the label ‘(hostile) foreign forces’ 境外(敌对)势力, a catch-all phrase for anybody or any viewpoint that deviates from the official doctrines of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The phrase is frequently employed by CPC officials and state media to allege foreign interference in China’s internal affairs. In the digital age, patriotic netizens have co-opted the term ‘foreign forces’ to denounce groups or individuals as traitors. This became even more pronounced in discussions of the CPC’s zero-COVID policy. Overseas Chinese are often perceived as outsiders, told by others in China to keep quiet since they either ‘do not understand the situation in China’ 不理解国情 or ‘are brainwashed by the West’ 被西方洗脑.
We do not know which recordings the author of this letter were referring to since many frustrated, angry, and desperate Shanghai citizens under the lockdown posted such recordings on social media, triggering both public concern and outrage. These recordings, together with the drone of loudspeakers telling people to stay at home, official press conferences, and the cries of citizens demanding food or medical aid, have been collated into audiovisual collages with titles such as ‘Shanghai Voices of April’ 上海四月之声.
Dear Zhiqi, Shiye and Jianguo,
I am a Shanghai native currently attending university in New York state. My entire family is ‘locked up’ in Shanghai right now. Drowning in a deluge of information about the lockdown, my first reaction was, ‘who am I in relation to this information? How should I engage with this information? And am I entitled to an opinion?’
One morning last weekend, a friend sent me two audio recordings. I was so angry after listening to them that I immediately sent a WeChat message to my parents asking, ‘have you heard these recordings?’ To my astonishment, they told me not to believe such crazy reports and that while I’m abroad, I should stay out of China’s internal affairs since ‘I wouldn’t understand’. ‘Oh, that’s right,’ I said ironically, ‘I’m a (hostile) foreign power!’ Even though I was being ironic, I couldn’t help but feel offended. A little recent observation tells me that there are two main arguments for ‘silencing the mic’ of so-called ‘foreign powers’. The kinder version – ‘You don’t understand the situation in China’. The radical version – ‘You have been brainwashed by Western media’. As an overseas Shanghainese, I don’t buy it.
I Don’t Understand the Situation in China?
My circle of fellow ‘foreign forces’ are all very concerned about Shanghai. During the early days of the Shanghai outbreak, when the situation turned bad very quickly, these friends shared on Wechat, articles, links, and documents describing the urgent pleas for help from people in Shanghai. Even though clearly, none of them were in China, and not all of them had family in Shanghai, they still saw themselves as taking part in Shanghai’s battle against the pandemic, rather than simply observing things from thousands of miles away – why?
My answer is that there is empathy between people. I can’t help but empathise with those individuals in the never-ending stream of news on social media; nor can I turn a blind eye to the real suffering expressed in their writings or voice recordings. While I may not understand what’s happening inside China or what the government is planning exactly, I can and ought to understand people. When I shared the news on Weibo about a son who lost his father [the father had kidney failure but couldn’t get treatment on time because he tested positive for COVID-19], I just wanted to support the son who had just lost his father in the hope that more people would not experience the agony of losing loved ones in that way.
I Have Been Brainwashed by the West?
Some of my more radical friends regularly post criticisms of China’s zero-COVID policy on social media and share commentaries from Western media. I don’t see a problem with them voicing their views, but I wouldn’t express myself in that way.
Since leaving China, I have definitely noticed some gradual changes in my ideological perspective, whether it was towards the pandemic, or political issues, or just my way of thinking. I am aware and wary of this change; I don’t want to become anyone’s puppet. I wanted to find some objective sources of information, but the harder I tried, the more my hope faded. I felt so desperate that I even thought that perhaps the only way to understand these issues would be for me to visit and speak to the people there.
Later I realised that ‘objectivity’ does not exist in many situations. All I could do amidst the flood of information was to approach each report dialectically, to see both sides. This is exactly what I attempted to do when approaching news on the Shanghai pandemic. If I couldn’t advance through the deluge of information, I’d just plant my feet down and refuse to be carried away by any of the swirling currents. At least I can say that I have not been brainwashed by any media.
I am only a university student in New York state. In stark contrast to the trials and tribulations experienced by those in Shanghai, I enjoy the luxury of peace and quiet in this university town while reading about the city in the news…I think that there is little I can do, except to approach information dialectically and maintain a genuine concern for others.
I will stop writing now. After reading what I have written thus far, I find that my ability to write has significantly weakened from a lack of practice. This letter seems to contain a series of tangled self-reflections, not at all what I originally intended it to be, namely an account of different point of views. Anyway – I am grateful for the Stochastic Volatility letterbox for giving me an audience, someone to talk to when I wanted to write.
Best wishes from snowy New York state,
10 April 2022