Residents in Shanghai are creating non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to get around strict censorship of the troubles facing 28.5 million people amid a harsh lockdown related to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As of Wednesday morning Asia time, more than 600 NFTs were minted based on the  “Voice of April,” a video montage that put together a compilation of audio calls and complaints made by Shanghai residents as they interacted with medical staff and neighborhood compound managers.

The development highlights the uses of blockchain technology beyond the hype that usually accompanies the innovation. Creative technologists have used the blockchain to record and preserve facts, as well as public opinion in the face of increasing administrative censorship. 

See related article: Back up Hong Kong: How blockchain has quietly become history’s hard drive

Shanghai continues to grapple with around 15,000 to 20,000 positive cases a day, according to official data. That is despite an avowed desire by the country’s political leadership to achieve zero positive cases.

The NFTs, available on OpenSea, document the anger, anxiety, frustration and desperation of the residents who were starving or struggling to get ahold of medical help. 

The video montage first appeared on social media on Friday and soon circulated across Chinese internet platforms. An NFT minter was also set up to raise funds for people in Shanghai, though it’s unclear who the creator is.

What doesn’t kill you

“The virus won’t kill you, but starvation will,” said an elderly man who gave food to a building worker in an audio recording shown in the video.

The six-minute clip reflects the city-wide agony after the city on the banks of the Huangpu River in the east of China went into a lockdown in late March.

The lockdown caught many of the city’s residents off-guard and ill-prepared. Many continue to struggle for basic access to food or medical supplies. 

“The virus won’t kill you, but starvation will.”

– A Shanghai resident

Media reports showed toddlers were forcibly taken away from their parents to be quarantined after testing positive for the SARS-COV2 virus. Authorities in China and Hong Kong continue to separate family members if one or more tests positive for the virus.

Over the weekend, authorities started fencing in individuals and families testing positive for the virus. That led to an outpouring of anger on social media, with some expressing concerns over the resulting fire hazard. 

“I’m a native Shanghainese, and I love the city,” said Cary in a WeChat post on Sunday.

“The intention for me to make this video was to objectively record what happened in Shanghai,” the likely creator of the video added. “There are many problems that we need to work together and overcome in this special time.”

A game of cat and mouse

As the video went viral over the past few days, Chinese authorities quickly jumped in to censor any criticism of the administration and the state. 

To get around that censorship, Internet users turned creative. Some changed the headline of the video, while some reposted it upside down.

That was when blockchain-savvy netizens turned to minting the NFTs featuring the video and related social media comments left by furious netizens.

Screenshot of NFTs related to “Voice of April” on OpenSea

One for the record

The video clip has also been backed up on Matters, a decentralized content-sharing platform built with the Interplanetary File System, or IPFS, a peer-to-peer protocol for sharing data in a distributed file system.

While Matters was initially set up with a goal to empower writers to take ownership of their work, the ability of blockchain technology to preserve such work has made it a natural tool used to fight against censorship, Jieping Zhang, founder and chief executive officer of the U.S.-based firm told Forkast.

“Whenever there’s a major public event that lives under the pressure of being censored, we’d see an influx of users [coming to Matters] to back up content or simply write about their lives,” said Zhang, who also established the Chinese-language news site Initium Media.

She said that when content recording collective memories are being wiped out massively, “the motive for people to save and keep it becomes strong.”

Indeed, “the 25 million people in Shanghai have taught the authorities a Web 3.0 lesson,” a user commented on a post on Matters. More than 100,000 registered users have posted on the platform.

See related article: Following forced closure, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily preserved on blockchain

Launched in 2018, Matters is no stranger to hosting such content, and it has become increasingly known as an outlet to get around censorship, particularly in China. 

As early as 2019, users started to post about China’s MeToo movement and back up important files on the platform. The platform also hosted posts related to protests in Hong Kong in 2019, followed by commentary around the coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2020.

Last June when Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, the city’s biggest-circulation pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to shut down, activists also used blockchain to preserve its articles.

In September, Initium Media issued a collection of NFTs that told stories of the migrant workers in Beijing who were evicted in 2017 as part of the city’s campaign to rid the city of its “low-end population.” 

The publication’s executive editor Susie Wu told Forkast at the time that by telling stories of a news event in the form of NFT displays, “we hope to remind readers that some things should not be easily forgotten.”

See related article: How cryptocurrency can power anti-government movements

It’s not just Chinese netizens who are taking advantage of the blockchain. 

“We’re starting to see a growing number of Russian and Ukrainian users, who are eager to find an alternative space for public discussion especially after many independent media platforms are being shut down,” Zhang added.

Leo Peng, a Taiwan-based blockchain business consultant and president of industry lobby Taiwan Blockchain Academia, told Forkast that a big perk of blockchain technology lies in the fact that it can facilitate freedom of speech under an authoritarian regime.

However, one issue that deserves wider discussions is the accuracy of the content recorded on a blockchain, Peng cautioned. 

“This problem is still being discussed in the legal world, and we still haven’t figured out a proper way to filter out wrong information,” he added.

While “the right to be forgotten” remains a burning question, Zhang said, for users in certain regions, “the right to ‘be remembered’ is a more pressing and urgent matter.”

Wearing them out

Despite the sliver of hope, not everyone is optimistic given the lack of an end in sight for the lockdown in Shanghai. 

“I kind of lost all hope already,” a 28-year-old media professional who lives with three cats told Forkast. “Even if people get the chance to speak out, the government won’t care and [will just do] whatever.” 

“I kind of lost all hope already.”

– A 28-year-old media professional.

“Even for the documentary, it recorded what happened, but there has been no investigation [into the actions shown in the video],” said the person.

“So there will never be a chance to hold the government accountable,” said the person, who preferred to stay anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject.