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First, Beijing failed to prevent Covid in Shanghai. Now, it’s struggling to censor criticism

The Shanghai lockdown isn’t just about the Covid-19 pandemic but also about the elite politics between the Shanghai and Beijing regions.

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Shanghai was the ultimate test of Beijing’s ability to prove its zero-Covid strategy correct, and it seems to have failed at it. The heads aren’t rolling yet, but Beijing will likely blame the local officials in Shanghai for the debacle. For Beijing, the voices from Shanghai demanding access to food have been very difficult to hide.

Thousands of messages and videos from Shanghai seeking help during the lockdown have made the job of censors difficult. People in Shanghai have found creative ways to get around the censorship by using words like “chuckle” to share their cryptic messages about the irony of the pandemic response.


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Code words and social media

One of the many characters people have used to bypass the censorship includes “Lì”, a combination of two different Chinese characters. Social media users used “Lì” to target Zhao Lijian and other senior party leaders who, in the past days, have criticised the US for its human rights record instead of helping people in Shanghai. The character “Lì” was censored entirely, and any references linking it to Zhao Lijian were removed.

“Well, this is America with a human rights deficit, right? This is so people-oriented!” vented a Weibo user in response to a post about suicide in Shanghai due to the lockdown.

Other users have targeted Zhao for his criticism of the US at a time people in Shanghai were going hungry.

“#Zhao Lijian’s intense response against the US# The US is leading the search every day, and Shanghai grocery shopping will not be displayed. It must be Biden who made the topic dark, and America has done all the bad things,” said a user mocking the remarks by Zhao. The post was censored on Weibo.

The barrage of criticism targeted at Zhao started after he blamed the US for politicising the pandemic in Shanghai. The US state department had announced that it would pull out some of its staff members from the city.

“We express strong dissatisfaction with the politicization and weaponization of evacuations by the US,” said Zhao at the daily press briefing.

Any “negative” commentary about the top leadership or officials are severely censored on any day, but this time the people of Shanghai and the censors were playing cat and mouse over the lockdown.

The Chinese State media took the lead from Zhao to create their narrative to distract people.

Beijing has sought to distract the attention from Shanghai’s food shortage and outrage by blaming the US for “destroying international order”. Chinese State media have published cartoons and essays calling the US the “Voldemort of global order”.

“Voldemort of global order: America is the ‘Dark Lord’ set on destroying international order,” said a headline published by China Daily.

The Chinese State media didn’t just stop there. On Tuesday, Global Times published an “exclusive” story describing a secret US cyberweapon to steal secrets worldwide. The “honeycomb” platform, according to Global Times, tricks the cyber networks and adjusts its attack strategy according to the type of network being targeted. The hashtag “CIA main battle cyber-attack weapon exposure” began heavily trending on Tuesday and was viewed 39 million times in just an hour’s time.


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The elite politics around lockdown

Despite the distraction strategies, the local government in Shanghai is trying to address the criticism to avoid further fallout.

On Tuesday, Shanghai acknowledged seven deaths related to Covid-19 after an investigation revealed that the authorities were under-reporting, hiding the death of some elderly patients. These seven deaths are the first confirmed fatalities due to Covid since the 2020 first wave.

The hashtag “Shanghai adds seven local deaths” was viewed 550 million times on Weibo. Wu Qing, the deputy vice mayor of Shanghai, apologised for the difficulties caused by the pandemic and the testing process that was put in place.

The Shanghai lockdown isn’t just about the Covid-19 pandemic but also about the elite politics between the Shanghai and Beijing regions. Xi Jinping’s ‘common prosperity’ campaign was never well-received in the entrepreneurial Shanghai region, where the business and political elites have expressed their dissatisfaction with the campaign. Beijing may be about to halt the campaign for a while.

“China has decided to suspend the full promotion of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious ‘common prosperity’ policy for the time being, with the economy slowing amid the Covid-19 pandemic,” South Korean news agency Kyodo News reported citing Chinese sources.

In recent weeks, the reference to “common prosperity” has gone down in Xi’s speeches as Beijing is trying to revive the economy. Over the past few days, Xi’s presence on the front page of the People’s Daily print edition has dropped as furore in Shanghai spread across Chinese social media.

Liu He, who is considered China’s economic crisis manager, had to step in and announce the need to stabilise supply chains.

“It is necessary to focus on stabilizing the industrial and supply chain, leveraging 1 trillion yuan of funds through 200 billion yuan in technological innovation reallocated loans and 100 billion yuan in transportation and logistics to build automobiles, integrated circuits, consumer electronics, equipment manufacturing, and agricultural materials, food, medicine and other key industries and foreign trade companies,” said Liu He on Monday in context of the severe disruption to supply chains because of lockdown in Shanghai.

The whole world saw the Beijing versus Shanghai match. This time the brave hearts of Shanghai have tricked the slow horses of Beijing.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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