An increasing number of citizens in Shanghai — China’s largest city — are minting non-fungible tokens of the Covid-19 lockdown to memorialize the experience and circumvent government censorship, according to Reuters.
Given that data on the blockchain is immutable and unerasable, Chinese citizens who hope to evade censorship detectors are taking artwork, videos and even photographs of the Covid-19 lockdown to the blockchain.
In late April, Chinese activists shared a short video called “The Voice of April,” which featured Shanghai voices discussing the lockdown. Today, more than 780 NFTs linked to the video are available on the popular NFT marketplace OpenSea, next to hundreds of other NFTs documenting Shanghai’s lockdown.
Although China has a ban on cryptocurrencies, the government is more open to the underlying blockchain technology powering crypto, even going so far as to create its own blockchain infrastructure called the Blockchain Service Network (BSN). Over 300 companies have minted NFTs on the BSN so far.
NFTs are allowed to flourish as “digital collectibles,” despite the ban on crypto trading. According to Shanghai-based think tank Suanli, China’s NFT market exploded to 150 million yuan ($23.56 million) last year. The world’s most-populous country released 4.56 million NFTs in 2021.
With NFTs ballooning in the country despite restrictions, Chinese netizens are using them as a tool of expression, particularly to denounce draconian public health measures during the lockdown. Although China has only recorded around 5,000 deaths from Covid-19, and the government has aggressively touted its zero-Covid policies as the reason for the small death count, this does little to quell public fury toward the restrictive public health measures.
Indeed, Shanghai is home to 25 million people who have been under a strict lockdown the past few weeks. Many have been unable to get medical supplies or food, creating a collective sense of discontent about the harsh lockdown measures. For weeks now, many residents have faced food scarcity and overwhelmed hospitals, along with growing frustration with the policies meant to protect them. The growing public ire has led to some government authorities claiming that any criticism of the state’s Covid-19 policies is tantamount to disloyalty toward the state and even Xi Jinping.
However, with the Covid-19 safety measures igniting public outrage in the city, the Chinese government is clamping down on digital outcry over the policies by censoring group chats. Unlike Web 2.0 tools, NFTs are much harder to expunge.
Nevertheless, the public outcry has been so strong that even prominent businessmen are speaking out: “Covid is not the only illness threatening the lives of the public,” Liang Jianzhang, the co-founder of Trip.com Group, wrote in Chinese Enterprise News. “Sacrificing everything in the pursuit of extreme ‘shock’ measures is not the comprehensive victory that we truly need.”
“The dynamic zero policy that we’re enforcing is increasingly costly, and increasingly ineffective,” echoed Lu Ting, the chief China economist at Nomura Holdings, in April.