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The scene could be from any large metropolis. A camera pans across the night sky, showing dozens of skyscrapers with many of their windows lit. But the soundtrack is eerie: People are screaming and wailing, horns and sirens are blaring.
Posted on social media, the video generated worldwide attention, with journalists seeking to verify its authenticity. It’s the kind of effort that has become common practice as viral misinformation appears in all forms, including videos with inauthentic soundtracks.
In this case, we were not able to verify its origin with the person who is said to have made it. But the scene captured by the video lines up with what journalists and people on the ground say has been happening in Shanghai, China, a city of 28.5 million that has been under strict lockdown amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Patrick Madrid, a Catholic radio host, posted the video on Twitter April 8.
"What the?? This video taken yesterday in Shanghai, China, by the father of a close friend of mine," Madrid wrote in this tweet. "She verified its authenticity: People screaming out of their windows after a week of total lockdown, no leaving your apartment for any reason."
The video was retweeted about 28,000 times and liked by more than 58,000 people. Madrid, who later clarified the video was taken by his friend’s uncle, not father, also posted the video on Facebook and spoke about it on his radio show. We were unable to connect with him directly.
During the early days of the pandemic, coordinated balcony events were commonplace in China — and even in the U.S., where New Yorkers took to their windows, balconies and streets to cheer healthcare workers changing shifts nightly at 7 p.m. This video from Wuhan, China, in January 2020 showed people chanting outside their windows "to boost morale," according to the South China Morning Post.
But while such apartment protests or coordinated activities may have been commonplace during lockdowns, Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and chief of the COVID Risk Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute, said this video from Madrid feels different.
"It’s common that people shout out their balconies, but not at this kind of level. People play music, people dance, people do crazy things. People are bored," said Feigl-Ding, who wrote a thread on Twitter about the video. "Commotion itself is commonplace. But this level of shouting is not commonplace."
"This is more like collective screaming," he told PolitiFact.
Madrid described it on his radio show in equally stark terms.
"It sounds like somebody opened one of the doors to hell, doesn’t it? And you’re just hearing," Madrid said. "But it’s not. It’s China. These people are suffering."
Feigl-Ding translated the video narration for PolitiFact. The narrator was shifting between Mandarin and Shanghainese several times and using idioms, Feigl-Ding said, so the translation is not precise, but it includes the following:
"Just five minutes ago there weren’t that many people shouting. Then all of a sudden, everyone’s shouting. If this continues, let me tell you, something bad’s gonna happen.
"From the outside you can’t tell everyone’s emotional state. You don’t really know how long they can hold it together, or how long they can endure."
The man also said the government has to provide residents — who aren’t allowed to leave their homes even to go to their buildings’ courtyard — some sort of end date to the lockdowns or "some incident is going to happen."
Madrid also posted the video on Facebook on April 9 and wrote a translation he said was given to him by his friend. The translation is consistent with Feigl-Ding’s: "It’s Shanghai, everyone is screaming, started with a couple now everyone is screaming, after a week of lockdown, something is going to happen, no one knows when this is going to end."
Shanghai residents have been on strict lockdown in their homes going on three weeks as the government enforces its zero-COVID policies amid a surge in infections — a record 27,000 new cases in the city on April 14 and more than 200,000 in the current outbreak — resulting in food shortages for those stuck in their homes, according to news reports.
The State Department issued a travel advisory on April 11 warning U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to China, specifically mentioning Shanghai, due to "COVID-19-related restrictions, including the risk of parents and children being separated." The department also ordered its non-emergency consular staff to leave Shanghai due to a surge in COVID-19 cases and the government’s restrictions.
Residents may be reaching a boiling point, showing dissent rarely seen in China, according to The New York Times. The lockdown has disrupted food supplies and deliveries, forcing residents to ration what they have, according to the Wall Street Journal and others.
Despite the virality of Madrid’s video, his wasn’t the first to circulate on social media showing China residents protesting or singing from their balconies. Another posted on Instagram on April 4 showed people yelling and making noise from their balconies.
Alice Su, a reporter for The Economist in China, posted a video on April 5 she said shows people singing and protesting the lack of supplies, before a talking drone appeared with a recording telling residents to go inside: "Please comply w covid restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing."
And a video dated April 6 showed what the South China Morning Post said was a balcony concert held in Shanghai to "boost morale."
David Culver, a CNN reporter locked down in his apartment in Shanghai, described food shortages and angry residents confronting police to demand supplies. "You are driving us crazy. We are starving," someone yelled, according to Culver.
Why have many Chinese residents been more willing to openly show dissent? It’s simple, Feigl-Ding said. There’s a social contract in China: "You don’t let people starve."
"In Chinese society you accept a lot of human rights limitations. They know they don’t have all the human rights that westerners have. They know that. But they accept it because they don’t ever want to go back to the days where they were starving again," Feigl-Ding said, referencing "the great famine" in the late 1950s that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people in China.
Feigl-Ding tweeted about one Shanghai resident’s recorded phone call with a police officer, where he asks if there is food available in prison. The man tells the officer that this is how revolutions start.
"In many ways it gets to the point where, of all the tragedies that people are suffering, not feeding people is the thing that crosses the line." Feigl-Ding said.
Patrick Madrid, tweet, April 8, 2022
The Patrick Madrid Show, April 11, 2022
Eric Feigl-Ding, twitter thread, April 9, 2022
Phone interview with Eric Feigl-Ding, April 11, 2022
Alice Su, tweet, April 5, 2022
Reuters, "Shanghai eases lockdown in some areas despite record COVID infections," April 11, 2022
The New York Times, "Shanghai residents bristle as a lockdown enters a second week with more testing," April 10, 2022
The New York Times, "Shanghai Seethes in Covid Lockdown, Posing Test to China’s Leadership," April 7, 2022
U.S. State Department, "China travel advisory," April 11, 2022
CNN, "'We are starving': Shanghai residents protest largest lockdown in the world," April 11, 2022
The Economist, "A clumsy lockdown of Shanghai is testing the "zero-covid" strategy," April 9, 2022
The Wall Street Journal, "Shanghai, in Lockdown, Struggles to Feed Itself," April 7, 2022
Reuters, "Shanghai cases hit record as Xi reiterates urgency of COVID curbs," April 14, 2022
NBC News, "U.S. orders some Shanghai consulate staff to leave amid Covid-19 outbreak," April 11, 2022