Shanghai Halloween Costumes Raise Specter of Censorship

Halloween celebrations in Shanghai doubled as an outlet for mild political “gags,” spooking censors and delighting audiences online. Photographs of party-goers dressed as Winnie the Pooh, livestreamer Li Jiaqi, Lu Xun, “big whites,” and zombified young job-seekers—to name but a few costumes with political undertones—went viral across social media. At The Wall Street Journal, Wenxin Fan, Rachel Liang, and Shen Lu reported on the Shanghai festivities and officials’ relative forbearance, within limits

“Each costume is a form of response to real life,” Shanghai-based columnist Lian Qingchuan wrote in a commentary published on the website of Hong Kong-based Phoenix New Media. “What can’t be said in words is expressed with the costumes.” 

[…] Summer Wu, a 23-year-old recent college graduate who majored in international trade, applied zombielike makeup and draped herself in copies of her résumé. “This is me cosplaying my recent life—interviews every day without any job offers,” she wrote on her account on short-video platform Douyin, describing a video she posted of her costume.

[…] In a social-media commentary, Shanghai’s official newspaper Jiefang Daily posted images of people dressed up as TV characters and other celebrities, saying the city deserves to have such a celebration.

The authorities on Wednesday told local residents in a statement that their party had ended for this year, and sent police to clear any revelers in the areas that were packed the previous nights. [Source]

On WeChat, costume compilations showcasing the funniest get-ups went viral. @whyyoutouzhele posted a number of photographs of the costumes to X, formerly Twitter: 

While the party was light-hearted and relaxed, the WeChat essayist @手紙 wrote that the best costumes were reflective of unrealized desires in daily life. They wrote: “The heart of all truly incisive comedy is tragedy. Those rascals on Shanghai’s streets and those of us sharing their antics online desire the same thing—that long-deserved but ever-elusive treat.” The intentionally vague language of online essayists—necessitated by censorship—makes it impossible to say with certainty exactly what that “treat” might be, but references within the essay to the chained woman Xiaohuamei, Lu Xun, pandemic enforcement, and bullied legal plaintiffs indicate a desire for political dignity. Censors removed certain discussions around the holiday from Zhihu, an indication of Halloween’s political sensitivity. 

Despite relative official tolerance for the celebrations, Weibo sentiment centered around speculation that the government will curb future Halloween parties. Weibo user @欧阳志刚正在搞创作 wrote a sarcastic appeal to the Bureau of Culture and Tourism urging it to set up local “cosplay cops” to police not just Halloween costumes but all costumes worn at any time of year:

Halloween should set alarm bells ringing for “the relevant organs,” and not just Halloween, but all Comic-Cons and cosplay across the country. These create dense crowds—a safety issue for which I’m sure “the relevant organs” are already well prepared—so I will not waste my breath there.

The key issue is the oversight of cosplayers. I personally suggest that all local Bureaus of Culture and Tourism establish a subsidiary Comprehensive Cosplay Management Office, “Cosbureau” for short, overseen by a director with an administrative ranking equivalent to a county chief and five deputies at the vice-chief level.

They should mandate that anyone who plans to appear in costume in public areas such as streets, alleyways, parks or squares must use a specially designed app to submit their costume for official review. Applicants should be required to (1) dress up and take three high-resolution photographs showing  the front, side, and back of the costume, including any accessories; (2) record at least three minutes of high-definition video of any physical gestures, speeches, songs, or dances that may be performed; (3) write an essay of at least 500 words describing the personage you plan to cosplay as, and the implications therein.

Next, use the app to upload a scanned copy of your ID, a contact phone number, social media accounts (which must display your real name), and information on any other family members listed on your household registration. “The relevant organs” will have thirty working days to review your costume, and—if it is approved—will then issue you a permit.

Please note: When carrying out your cosplay, adhere strictly to the pre-approved costumes, props, gestures, and movements. Any deviations will be viewed as a violation, resulting in your immediate ejection from the venue and a three-year disqualification from participating in future events. Of course, the rules allow for some leniency regarding which foot, left or right, you decide to lead with while walking. [Chinese]

Other Weibo users pointed out that the joke was dangerously close to reality. @花翎202307 said, “You’re actually giving them ideas…” Earlier this year, a comedy crackdown spotlighted the newly empowered role of wenguan, cultural law enforcement officers in the mold of the long-reviled urban street-level enforcement chengguan. 2023 also saw the establishment of nongguan, rural law enforcement officers also modeled after chengguan. In the comment section of the post, netizens jokingly implored the original poster to shut up

请给Dintaky一个波特:The English-Chinese hybrid name “cos办” (“Cosbureau”) isn’t appropriate for the official letterhead of a red-headed document. I recommend changing the name to the “Office of Performance Review for Ordinary Residents Wishing to Wear Non-Standard Attire.”

憨厚朴实的小伙子:Putting it under local Culture and Tourism Bureaus seems too lowly. I’d suggest putting it under the auspices of the Propaganda Department, to elevate its ideological stature. 

美食家saber:Stop it, you’re scaring me! [Chinese]

The sensitivity of the party stemmed in part from its temporal proximity to the first anniversary of the 2022 White Paper Protests, which saw thousands take to the streets across China—but most famously to Shanghai’s Urumqi Middle Road—to protest against China’s zero-COVID policy. The policy was abandoned soon after the protests. At China Heritage, Geremie R. Barmé translated Li Yuan’s conversation with a Shanghai party-attendee, who said the celebration was reminiscent of last year’s protests:

I experienced a kind of déjà-vu, a repeat of 27 November last year at Urumqi Road: the crowds jostling shoulder to shoulder. Just like then, this time there were also a few brave outspoken souls, as well as lots of onlookers enjoying the spectacle. Halloween is when ghouls and specters haunt the night and parade in the streets. This night everyone was out taking pictures of each other in their outfits, strolling along, chilling out… There was a palpable sense that people were not simply taking part in the festivities of Halloween. It was as though, after three years of lockdowns, enforced isolation, hospitalisations and dynamic Covid restrictions, not to mention the Blank Page protests [of November 2022], people had gone into the streets to enjoy themselves, to make fun of things as well as to express their anger and frustration about the absurdity of things, but with playful inventiveness. Young people were demonstrating a hunger for self-expression and freedom.

There was just this sudden collective realization that, suddenly, they had a chance to express themselves freely and openly in the exuberant silliness of Halloween. [Source]


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