At the height of China’s worst Covid outbreak, the authorities in Shanghai took over gleaming high-rise office buildings and turned them into mass isolation centers. Floor after floor, room after room, the buildings were filled with people, their beds arranged in tight rows.
Those buildings, and the broader lockdown of Shanghai, reinforced the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s power to marshal resources in its quest to eliminate Covid. But they also fueled deep frustration with the government’s failures and overreach.
In eastern Shanghai, police officers in white protective suits clashed with angry residents who protested being pushed out of their homes when their buildings were being used as isolation sites.
Inside these centers, silence, privacy and even showers were in short supply. Yolanda Zhou, a Shanghai resident, said her 86-year-old grandfather had cried as he was sent to one such high-rise office building. “There were a lot of people in that environment, so he was quite fearful,” Ms. Zhou said.
The weeks-long lockdown in Shanghai, China’s largest city with 25 million people, is the most extensive the country has imposed in more than two years. Businesses and factories have shut, leaving the financial capital’s streets empty, a daily reminder of the heavy costs of the party’s “zero-Covid” policy.
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‘Take in all who should be taken in’
Chinese leaders have enforced mass quarantines, urging officials to “take in all who should be taken in.” That meant anyone who tested positive would be sent to hospitals or isolation facilities set up in schools, exhibition centers and other public venues.
In western Shanghai, more than 100 people slept on cots crammed together in a converted office building. There were just four bathrooms, no showers and only one option at breakfast: plain bread.
Another site, in a convention center, contained thousands of beds arranged into zones that were demarcated by purple signs. Floodlights were kept on around the clock, forcing residents to use cardboard to block their harsh glare.
Leona Cheng, a student in her early 20s, said the nurses and doctors were so busy that it was hard to get any help. The lack of staffing also created dire living conditions.
The portable toilet stalls soon filled with so much human waste that Ms. Cheng said she stopped drinking water for several days so she wouldn’t have to use them as frequently.
The conditions were similar at an isolation site in a middle school in Shanghai’s Baoshan District.
Inside the gymnasium, people were lying on beds lined up about an arm’s length apart. In a hallway, garbage was piling up next to an occupied bed.
u/1859404834 via Storyful
Across the city, barriers kept residents inside and forced others to stay out.
Many delivery drivers have been sleeping in tents on the street, unable to return to their own residential compounds because they had been locked down.
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These drivers have been a lifeline for millions of residents confined to their homes, ferrying much-needed food, supplies and medicines at risk to their health and for very little pay.
‘We want to eat, we want to work!’
The hastily ordered lockdown caused widespread shortages of food and necessities and disrupted medical care for people with other illnesses. Residents responded with a rare outpouring of anger.
Videos of protests are rare on the Chinese internet, where government censors work around the clock to scrub dissent. But during the lockdown, a number of such videos were shared and viewed widely by Chinese social media users.
The Times found and analyzed three different angles of videos capturing a demonstration in late March in a community called Datang Huayuan, in Shanghai’s Baoshan District. In one video, a large group of people gathered outside. “We want supplies!” one woman yelled into a bullhorn. “We want to survive!” Videos of the incident have since been taken down from Weibo, the popular Twitter-like platform.
In some neighborhoods, government handouts have been inconsistent and sparse. Even the wealthiest residents scrambled for groceries. Many older residents who don’t use smartphones or online shopping apps have suddenly found themselves cut off from daily life — and sources of food.
Others protested the restrictions that prevented them from working even as they had to continue paying rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Times analyzed and verified the location of another protest video, originally posted to Weibo, in which residents of Luoyang Sancun, a middle-class community in southwestern Shanghai, gathered outside and chanted in unison: “We want to eat, we want to work, we want the right to information!”
At times, altercations broke out between residents and government workers who had sealed the entrances to some apartment complexes using green metal fences.
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People have pushed back with increasing intensity against what they see as authoritarian excess.
When Shanghai separated children from their families, parents organized online petitions, forcing officials to make concessions. When health workers fatally beat a corgi that they thought might have been infected, residents complained, prompting community workers to acknowledge that the killing had been excessive.
One night, four banners were strung up on a normally bustling road, giving voice to the city’s weariness, grief and anger. One banner listed people who had died after being denied care, and alluded to broader oppression. Another criticized Chinese censorship.
Photos of the banners circulated widely on Weibo and in private groups on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, but were quickly censored. Gao Ming, a podcaster based in Shanghai, said that Chinese police asked him to delete a tweet containing photos of the banners. He refused.
By the morning, the banners were gone.
‘The largest human rights deficit’
To stamp out signs of discontent, the authorities have turned to a proven playbook, flooding the internet with feel-good propaganda while erasing critical content.
State media outlets have posted videos highlighting the dedication of China’s health-care volunteers and showing patients at quarantine sites dancing to keep their spirits up. Censors raced to scrub videos and online discussions about food shortages.
But some Chinese internet users were able to stay one step ahead, and turned the propaganda on its head. Users began using the hashtag “the U.S. is the country with the largest human rights deficit” to voice their criticism of the government’s actions in Shanghai.
@用名用名 user: #美国是最大的人权赤字国# 嗯嗯，我们虽然给人家门口贴封条，杀宠物，浪费医疗资源让更多急重症患者错失治疗，但我们统计死亡数字可是0呢！
@用名用名 user: #the US is the country with the largest human rights deficit# Right, so we seal people’s front doors, kill pets, waste medical resources so that patients with acute and severe diseases are unable to get treatment, but our death toll is apparently zero!
The Times has concealed the usernames.
The Whac-A-Mole game between censors and online users escalated with the emergence last week of “Voices of April,” a six-minute video that overlaid the voices of residents begging for help from officials and community workers against black-and-white aerial footage of Shanghai.
“This virus won’t kill you, but starvation will,” one man says.
““I’m frustrated that I can’t help you,” a neighborhood worker tells a resident. “If anything, I’m even more heartbroken than you are.”
Translation by China Digital Times, via YouTube
Censors went into overdrive to pull down the video. But users persisted. They kept posting the video, over and over, reversing it, rotating it and embedding it in other videos.
For a brief moment, the wave of censorship even spurred fervent debates about freedom of speech.
Soon, those were censored, too.