A voice from old Shanghai under COVID lockdown

Politics & Current Affairs

Shanghai residents are seething under strict COVID-19 lockdowns that have left many imprisoned in their apartments without food. A video of one old man’s complaints that went viral gives an idea of the depth of discontent that some Shanghainese people are feeling.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

On April 4 and 5, 2022, as Shanghai’s strict lockdown intensified, leaving many residents with no food in their fridges and forbidden from leaving their apartments, a short video titled “An Older Shanghai Man Vents His Fury” (上海老人家发怒) circulated widely on WeChat.

The video showed a man outside an apartment building giving health workers in hazmat suits a piece of his mind. The popularity of this monologue of frustration hinted at how much, and how little, can be aired in China’s most globalized metropolis. Within hours, the video was censored, but the audio has been preserved here.

Below is a translation of the rant. My thanks to Jianying Zha, who alerted me to this video.

— Geremie R. Barmé

See those birds flying around? They can transmit the disease far more widely than I can, but they’re not wearing face masks! Work that out first — sparrows are flying around all over the place [a reference to the Four Pests Campaign of 1958–1962, a nationwide public hygiene movement to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows].

Yet our whole area is not allowed out; we’re cooped up all day in jail. You need to apply science to what you’re doing; there must be reason. What the blazes do you all think you’re doing? Who’s behind all of this? Revolution: what, are you trying to outdo the Cultural Revolution? It’s not a mass movement, you’re just moving the masses, right? What exactly is the aim? You’re just creating problems, inventing antagonisms. Look at the atmosphere of terror you’ve all created.

I’ve got heart problems and I’ve got three stents in me. All of this is scaring the hell out of me. The parks are all closed, so I can’t go for a stroll; can’t even go to the shops. Isn’t that so?

Over 1 billion Chinese yet when the Red Sun, Máo Zédōng 毛泽东, died, back in 1976, it wasn’t this bad. They just lowered the flag to half mast. When Grandpa Deng [Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平], the son of the people, passed away in 1997, they didn’t do anything like this, either. What’s next? Are you going to cut off our power, our water, and food supplies on top of it all?

I’m going to apply to be put in jail. I’m just managing to survive on rice congee and noodles. I’d be better off in jail; I wouldn’t have to come down like this or worry about not having my medicines. At least in jail they’d give me medicine. I’m giving up entirely, “lying flat” in protest.

The whole of China is going through this. Nowhere else in the world, nowhere even in the universe, is it like this. People are going crazy; they want to hurl themselves off the top of buildings. Depression, personality disorders, heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms — how many people are dying like this? People are afraid of the dark; they are scared to death…Don’t you get it? I haven’t seen anything like this in all of my 70 years. Is there any sense of humanity left in you? Any sense of human decency? Do you have any respect for basic human rights?

It’s my heart again, right now, and I’m panting. [Sits on the stoop at the entrance of the apartment building.]

This is absolutely disgraceful! [Lights a cigarette.] Now we are back to the days when the city was surrounded by the countryside [that is, when a peasant army led by the Communists surrounded and conquered Shanghai]. The only people who are allowed to be out and about are you outsiders. We local Shanghainese are all locked up in your jail.

In the old days, weren’t the workers the leading class? Then the more political movements they launched, more and more people were made into reactionaries. They could do whatever they wanted.

This is absolutely unacceptable! You’re treating us like animals. Overseas people couldn’t even get away with treating a dog or a cat like this. No humanity!

You want to test for the virus? We’re supposed to be citizens, but are we, really? Do we ever get even half a ballot to vote with? Can we ever own even an inch of land?

I’ve been cooperating with you, haven’t I? I’ve given you face [and showed you a modicum of respect]. You’ve invited me to make myself available. And you, with all your requirements: I’ve shown you my Green Code, my ID, this and that, what else?

I’m really terrified out of my wits because of my heart condition. Understand? And what I’m being fed is poison…

See also: Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, on China Heritage.


‘Ugh, here we are’ — Q&A with Geremie Barmé

Follow our coverage of the Shanghai lockdown.

Geremie R. Barmé