Since the lockdown in Shanghai began five weeks ago, numerous video and audio recordings about the suffering of people in Shanghai have circulated online, and many have been censored. “Voices of April,” a six-minute viral video comprised of leaked audio clips, was widely shared before government censorship directives demanded its removal. A 20-minute phone call in which epidemiologist Dr. Zhu Weiping criticized the failures of that city’s lockdown became very popular for a brief time before it, too, was censored. There was also a humorous, profane nine-minute audio recording of a phone call in which a German resident in Shanghai objected to the absurdities and inefficiencies of local quarantine policy.
Last week, an audio recording of a telephone call between a local cadre and a Shanghai man complaining about the lockdown was widely shared and later censored on Chinese social media. Many were impressed by the man’s frank criticism of the uncaring attitude of some CCP cadres, as well as his references to political and economic parallels from Chinese history.
CDT editors have archived, transcribed, and translated the 16-minute-long call. The link to the Chinese audio file and the complete English translation appear below:
Subdistrict Committee Officer: No, that’s not our job, so I’m not sure. Our job’s just to receive the supplies and pass them along to the different neighborhood committees.
Female resident: So …
Officer: As for where those supplies came from, I’m guessing they were purchased by the district government or something.
Female resident: So this …
Officer: If you haven’t received yours, all I can do is make a note of it, and pass on the information to your neighborhood committee and the sub-district committee, but …
Female resident: So you’re saying the district commerce committee sent you the supplies, and you’re just responsible for distributing them, right?
Officer: Um, I think that’s probably the case.
Female resident: Then you must at least know which department sent you the supplies, right? Whether it was the commerce committee or some other department, right?
Officer: I’d have to ask, because …
Female resident: You don’t even know who sent you the supplies?
Officer: I just work in reception. I don’t know, I really don’t. We don’t handle the supplies. Each department …
Female resident: Well, can you confirm whether or not the Caojiadu subdistrict committee sent out five rounds of supplies? I’d like to confirm that.
Officer: That sounds right.
Male resident: Excuse me, officer, here’s the situation. Right now, our family is able to get enough food through other means to satisfy our daily needs. But this area of Caojiadu around Jing’an Temple has a high concentration of elderly people, and so far we’ve only received four deliveries of supplies, one of which was just disinfectant and a spray bottle, and that’s not edible, right? And most of what we got was vegetables, not meat. It’s been how long, now? Nearly a month since the lockdown began on April first. Do you think a typical family can survive on just four food deliveries? I understand there are things you can’t talk about, and that you may not be able to give us a straight answer. I understand you’re in a difficult position, too. The situation in Shanghai isn’t the fault of any particular individual or government department, but it’s still beyond belief.
I’m fifty, and I’ve lived through a lot of things in Shanghai, including epidemics, natural disasters, and man-made disasters which I won’t go into details about. But I’ve never seen Shanghai like this. We’ve become numb. Not everyone is capable of getting what they need via the internet, you know? You look around and see sick folks who can’t get treatment, kids who can’t go to school, workers who can’t go to work, business being put on hold. And we put up with it all, right? Chinese people are easygoing to a fault, you could say. But when you mess with their food and basic survival, you’re crossing the line. You should be able to look up how many deliveries the neighborhood committee made, and what was in each one. So far we’ve gotten radishes, carrots, some greens, luncheon meat, and milk. Do you think that little bit contains enough protein and nutrients for a typical family? No one seems to care. Or does no one care because nobody’s complaining?
Officer: So the reason you called us … I’m trying to understand, sir. What exactly is your request?
Male resident: My request is simple! I want to know if you care about the residents of this neighborhood, including a lot of elderly folks, many of whom need medical treatment. I want to know whether you think the amount of food you’re supplying is enough to meet our basic needs. Sure, I can eat a bit less, reduce my activity, even cut down to two meals a day, no problem. But the difference between what a typical family like ours needs to survive, and the amount of food you’re supplying … it’s just too big a gap, officer.
Male resident: And it’s not like we insist on fresh vegetables every day, but they don’t keep for long. After a few days, they go bad.
Officer: All right.
Male resident: Right. And what’s the most important thing you need to fight the virus? Immunity. How am I supposed to keep up my immunity with insufficient nutrition? And what if I were ill? Our downstairs neighbor has cancer, and she can’t see a doctor, can’t get chemo, can’t get anyone to clean the catheter in her arm, and now her arm’s infected. Maybe you’re overwhelmed, maybe you’ve become numb because you’ve heard too many stories like this. We’re living the stories, and we’ve become numb, too. But this way of doing things is just wrong. This endless lockdown: they say one thing today, another tomorrow, giving us false hope until there’s no hope left. It’s never-ending. As long as you give us a definitive date, we can be patient and stick it out. No problem. And if supplies need to be rationed, fine, just let us know what the limit is so we can keep track.
Male resident: How many more days are we talking here? I need to know that to be able to ration my limited supplies. You ought to at least tell me that.
Officer: Right now, I can’t …
Male resident: I don’t even know how many more days we’re looking at. How am I supposed to know how to ration?
Male resident: And this is the city center of Shanghai that we’re talking about. If this is how things are being managed here, what about suburbs and towns that are further away? What about the bigger residential communities? What kind of a job are you doing over there? You’d be even more overwhelmed. You’d have all sorts of reasons to ignore those people. If you can’t even manage a small community like ours, how could you possibly deal with a community many times as big?
Male resident: Now, this really isn’t something that can be overcome, because it’s come down to basic survival. Look at all the peasant uprisings throughout Chinese history and you’ll see that as meek as Chinese people are, you can’t mess with our basic survival. If you take away our rice bowls and starve us, we’ll revolt. Wouldn’t you agree? If you levy extortionate taxes, OK, no problem, the common folk will put up with it. If you confiscate their harvest, at first, no one’s going to revolt. But if you really push people to the brink of starvation, then you’re asking for trouble, officer.
Officer: Sir, let me say this: all of us at the subdistrict office are aware of the problems you described. As for people being unable to get medical treatment, even our bosses are at their wits’ end, but their hands are tied.
Male resident: I know. I’ve tried so hard to help the old woman downstairs. I’ve made reports, I’ve contacted so many departments, so many volunteers, people who care…
Officer: That’s not my fault.
Male resident: No, I’m not blaming you, not at all. I’ve made calls to many departments, including yours. I know you’re doing your best, and I appreciate it.
Officer: It’s hard for us grassroots cadres. At least you’re able to stay in your homes. We’re stuck here, sleeping in our offices.
Male resident: I understand, I do. I completely understand …
Officer: We’ve been living in our offices.
Male resident: But we’re just regular folks. We can’t make ourselves heard at the very top. You’re the highest level we can access. Who else can we turn to?
Female resident: Maybe …
Male resident: Even the 12345 hotline is worthless.
Female resident: Do you perhaps have a contact number for your supervising department? Maybe I can call them directly.
Officer: No, I really don’t.
Female resident: Oh …
Male resident: You are asking the wrong person. These grassroots cadres manning the hotlines are just cannon fodder. Let’s not mince words here. Your department, this hotline right here, is taking all the flak. But what can you do? I understand you’re in a difficult situation.
Officer: Well, I appreciate that.
Male resident: But when our survival is threatened, where can we turn to? If we speak up, we get admonished, blacklisted, and controlled. Is that how you get your kicks? Why are you doing this? Aren’t Chinese people docile enough already? Does lording it over these docile folks make you feel high and mighty? Is bullying the meek your idea of fun?
Officer: Well, sir, I mean …
Male resident: So far you’ve sent us five deliveries of supplies. One of those was just a disinfectant solution. What was I supposed to do with that, drink it? Guzzle it down? You can go over to the neighborhood committee and look up the other four to see what you sent out. The only halfway decent food package had some milk and luncheon meat. The rest were all vegetables. They sent eggs once. We’re not allowed to go out and buy food, and the prices are sky-high.
Male resident: Not all families can afford these high prices. Some are barely scraping by. If you’re charging five or six times the normal price, they just can’t afford it. Maybe they can scrape by for a week, at most. My family can’t keep going like this, either. You’ve closed down all the shops, forcing us to buy from these so-called “licensed suppliers.” Then you blame the delivery workers for spreading the virus. You tell me: can these drivers even go out on the streets without approval? It seems like they’re just a convenient scapegoat. Who are they hurting? Wouldn’t we be worse off without them? We ought to be thanking them for their service, not dumping shit on them! Anyway, don’t delivery workers have to take COVID tests? Are all those cops out on the street just giving them a free pass, letting them roam the streets freely during a pandemic? You’ve got to be kidding me. The other day, I drove our housekeeper somewhere, and the cops stopped me twice within 30 minutes to check my travel permit. With controls that strict, you still can’t stop the spread? Do you expect us to believe there are COVID-positive delivery workers out there, roaming the streets? What a load of nonsense. You’re just looking for excuses, looking for scapegoats. You lock down the whole city, and yet we’re still having an endless stream of new cases. Don’t you find that strange?
Officer: I do find it strange, to be honest.
Male resident: Insulting our intelligence like this is outrageous. One positive case today, one positive case tomorrow … it’s never-ending. You’re just dragging this out. When’s the lockdown going to be lifted? Nobody can give us a straight answer.
Officer: I want this lockdown to end soon, too, so I can go home, and so you can …
Male resident: It’s not about when the lockdown is going to end, let me tell you. It’s about when you guys decide you’re done playing. Right? How are you going to “reach zero” and “wipe out” the virus? You can’t even wipe out flies and mosquitos. Viruses are invisible to the naked eye. Viruses have existed on this earth for far, far longer than humans. Humans haven’t been around long, but you think anyone could wipe us out? You’ve got to be kidding me. Someone downstairs from us tested positive and they were fine, nothing worse than a common cold. Three days later, they got hauled off to quarantine. In an old building like ours, if they’d been infectious, we’d all be dead!
Officer: Sir, I sympathize with everything you’re saying, truly. But our subdistrict committee office just carries out policy.
Male resident: I get it, I do. Right now, Shanghai’s not under Shanghaiers’ control.
Male resident：I understand your plight. You’re sleeping in your office without showers or a change of clothes.
Officer: Things like PCR testing and antigen testing, that’s all organized at the district level. It’s part of a coordinated plan.
Male resident: Do the math. How much of our hard-earned tax money is being wasted on this?
Officer: I know, but our hands are tied.
Male resident: How many people don’t have insurance, can’t afford to see a doctor, and end up dying outside the hospital door, yet you’re squandering our limited social service funding. What’s the point of this endless PCR testing? Is it necessary? We go along with it, despite our reservations. Every time you call for more testing, we give you our active cooperation. What more do you want from us? Every time we turn around, you’re poking something up our noses. How’s that working out? You think if you poke enough swabs up our noses, you’ll bring this city’s outbreak under control?
Officer: I know you’re very angry, but they’re poking swabs up my nose every day too, and I don’t like it, either.
Male resident: It’s pointless, well and truly pointless. This is about science …
Officer: It ought to be …
Male resident: This is science. It’s not a problem you can solve with grand ideology or a strong fighting spirit. It’s science! What you’re all doing is pseudoscience. You should leave it to the professionals. If you can take a scalpel and perform surgery, and the guy doesn’t die on the operating table, then I’ll listen to you. Because you can do something I can’t. But the way you guys … when I called you today, I didn’t expect any answers. I understand things are hard for you, and you’re exhausted, and you’re basically helpless. But do you let us common folk tell you what’s really going on? Is this some kind of game? When does it end? What the hell are you doing, and what are we doing? We’re not doing what we should. Day in and day out we take these meaningless, and even dangerous, PCR tests. [long pause] It wasn’t easy for Shanghai to build up the little bit of capital it has, but it’s easy for you to squander it overnight! Since reform and opening started in ’79, we’ve been working for 40 years to earn a bit of wealth, but look how this month of suffering has left us. And now you want to do it for another month? Building a city isn’t easy—building up its organization, customs, kindness, culture, economy, all that organization—it was no mean feat. It took generations. If you’re looking to destroy it, I’m telling you, it’ll be destroyed before the year is out. In the rest of the world, everyone is sprinting ahead, getting manufacturing up and running, getting back to normal life, getting back to business. But here, we haven’t come to a halt, we’re going backwards. We’ve put the car in reverse and we’re giving it gas.
Male resident: Honestly, officer, maybe I shouldn’t have said so much, but I’ve just bottled up too much rage.
Officer: You want to vent about the injustice you see. I understand that feeling, I really do.
Male resident: Just do something good for once, will you?
Officer: We grassroots cadres want this lockdown to end, too, and for everyone’s lives to get back to normal …
Male resident: It’s all so pointless. I feel the same.
Officer: You’re stuck at home, we’re stuck in the office, but we all feel the same. Everyone wants the lockdown to end soon …
Male resident: Even so, officer, even so … I’m stuck at home and can’t do any work. All of my projects are stalled. They’re all stalled.
Male resident: It was the same last year. I’m a small business owner, and you’ve been putting me through the ringer for two years now, and why? I’m not productive, and just waste my days waiting around for food aid packages from you guys. There was a tragic period in Chinese history when people just sat around not being productive. Do we really want to repeat that? You’re younger than me. You probably don’t know about those three years. Is that where we’re heading?
Officer: Yes, I hear you.
Male resident: Kids can’t go to school. Middle school and high school seniors can’t take normal classes or normal exams. My colleague’s daughter goes to an international school, and needs to take an exam to study abroad. How’s she supposed to do that through remote learning? Her tuition’s 120,000 yuan a year. You think they care about your pandemic controls?
Male resident: You can’t keep doing this to us, officer, you’re truly … I know that right now, Shanghaiers are afraid to speak up, so they’re standing on the sidelines. If we do speak up, you mow us down like grass, you force us up against the wall … Listen to the voices of the people, will you? We’re out here banging on pots and pans, just to get you to listen. Can you hear us?
Officer: [after a pause] Our office has heard some of that.
Male resident: It’s absurd that this is happening in 21st-century Shanghai. Have you no pride? You think this makes Shanghai look like a respectable international city, or a joke? We’re a laughingstock, understand? You think this is about fighting the pandemic? [long pause] We don’t need to go down that particular rabbit hole. Everyone understands this isn’t about fighting a pandemic. [long silence] Well, I won’t keep you any longer, officer. Thank you. [Chinese]
Translation by Alex Yu and Joseph Brouwer.