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Shanghai residents turn to NFTs to record COVID lockdown

Shanghai residents are turning to the blockchain to preserve memories of the city’s month-long lockdown, minting videos, photos and artworks capturing their ordeal as non-fungible tokens to ensure they can be shared and avoid deletion. Unable to leave their homes for weeks at a time, many of the city’s 25 million residents have been unleashing their frustrations online, venting about draconian lockdown curbs. And also, about difficulties procuring food, and sharing stories of hardship, such as patients unable to get medical treatment.

That has intensified the cat-and-mouse game with Chinese censors, which have vowed to step up policing of the internet and group chats to prevent what they describe as rumours and efforts to stoke discord over seething public frustration with the lockdown. While some people have defiantly continued reposting such content, others are turning to NFT marketplaces like the world’s largest, OpenSea. The height of Shanghai’s lockdown minting moment is rooted in April 22.

On April 23, a Chinese Twitter user with the handle imFong said that they have minted the ‘Voice of April’ video into an NFT and have frozen its metadata. This video will exist forever on the IPFS. Like most major foreign social media and news platforms, Twitter is blocked in China, although residents can access it using VPNs. A Shanghai-based programmer said that he was among those in the city who viewed their effort to keep the video alive as part of a people’s rebellion. He has himself minted an NFT based on a screenshot of Shanghai’s COVID lockdown map, showing how most of the city has been sealed off from the outside world.

Other Shanghai content available on OpenSea as NFTs for sale includes Weibo posts containing complaints about the curbs, images from inside quarantine centres, and works of art inspired by life under lockdown. Simon Fong, a 49-year-old freelance designer from Malaysia who has been living in Shanghai for nine years, began creating satirical illustrations on life under lockdown in the style of Mao-era propaganda posters. He started minting them into NFTs. His pieces include scenes dramatising PCR testing, as well as residents’ demands for government rations. Fong stated that he chose the Mao-era propaganda style for these pieces because some people are saying that the lockdown situation is taking Shanghai backward.

While China has banned cryptocurrency trading, it sees the blockchain as a promising technology and NFTs have been gaining traction in the country, embraced by state media outlets and even tech companies including Ant Group and Tencent Holdings. The protracted lockdown in Shanghai, China’s financial hub, is party of Beijing’s controversial zero-COVID strategy. The COVID outbreak in Shanghai, which began in March, has been China’s worst since the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Hundreds of thousands have been infected in the city.

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