Citizens and tourists dress up and take part in a Halloween parade in Shanghai, China, October 31, 2023

Costfoto/NurPhoto/Shutterstock (Licensed)

‘Who is frightened by our laughter?’: Young Chinese use Halloween costumes to protest the government at massive celebration in Shanghai

‘I can feel the alliance, the unspoken bitterness, the hopelessness, and the anger.’

 

Leqi Zhong

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A few “COVID prevention workers” in blue and white hazmat suits stood in the center of the crowd as paradegoers took turns coming forward for “COVID tests” as police nearby kept a close eye on them. A viral video on X with over 1 million views shows that police later drove away the “COVID workers” and ordered the assembly to disperse.

The post called it a “[h]istoric moment in Shanghai: This time, Dabai was taken away by the police.” (Dabai refers COVID prevention suits.)

Thousands of Chinese people flooded Shanghai to celebrate Halloween this year. Social media users described it as the largest mass gathering since the protests against COVID restrictions at the end of 2022—which spread to several cities and was seen as the catalyst for China suddenly lifting those restrictions last December.

Among the celebrities and cartoon characters, many costumes satirized various issues in China, such as Dabai, the notorious suits that were worn by medical personnel, community workers and police during the three-year lockdown.

The suits invoked collective memories of being cooped up at home, dragged away for quarantine, and having pets exterminated by health workers as measures intended to reduce transmission of the virus.

In Body Image
A person in Dabai stands outside of a convenient store.

Others dressed as “beggars” with signs depicting their college majors hanging around their necks to hint at the high unemployment rate. (Census data released this spring indicated that a fifth of college graduates were without jobs.)

A group outfitted in pillows quilts and sleep masks invoked “lying flat,” a recent trend of resisting working hard as expected of young Chinese, many of whom complain of the overwhelming pressure to be “productive,” get married and raise children.

In Body Image
A group costume symbolizing “lying flat,” a youth-led movement protesting being overworked

Images circulating online show costumed revelers holding up road signs that said, “I am working overtime and spending the New Year’s Eve in the office.” The signs are a nod to people taking photos in front of signs at tourist attractions after lockdowns lifted, which local governments encouraged, and outrage over China announcing in mid-October that the lunar New Year’s Eve is not an official holiday in 2024.

“It’s just a way for youngsters to let off steam from work and life pressures. The vast majority of us weren’t in costumes, but we had a good time,” a person who attended the Halloween celebration/protest in Shanghai told the Daily Dot. He preferred not to be named to avoid potential retaliation from the authorities.

“One of my friends shouted, ‘Our spirit is refreshed!’ and a dozen cops turned around, and stared at him,” he added.

In Body Image
A man advocating not to hunt stray dogs, a reference to China banning certain “oversized” breeds

On Weibo, a Chinese social media site similar to Twitter, many praised Shanghai for being unique, open, and diverse enough for such an event to take place. In China, it can be risky to publicly express displeasure with the government. People who do so are at times taken away for questioning, which suppresses such speech.

Crowd gatherings like the one seen in Shanghai on Halloween are also seen as a threat to social stability.

The government did take some measures to suppress the event, however.

In addition to deploying additional security, Shanghai temporarily closed the Huaihai Zhong Road metro station, the closest station to the event, due to the volume of traffic around the area. Statistics from the Shanghai Railway Traffic Information Management Center showed that 12 million passengers took the subway on Oct. 31, an increase of roughly 150,000 commuters compared to the average traffic on weekdays.

Netizens reported that the posts tagging “Shanghai Halloween” and “Julu Road” were both censored on Weibo.

On Mastodon, a decentralized social media platform that attracted a lot of Chinese users seeking to avoid being tracked down for criticizing harsh COVID restrictions during last year’s lockdown, many users talked about a viral picture of a person wearing a camera head cover standing silently between two cops. The costume was seen as a caricature of China’s mass surveillance system.

Another viral post that was widely mocked showed a police officer shouting through a loudspeaker that he was a real cop, not a pretender.

“Halloween blurs boundaries, absurdity deconstructs authority,” a Mastodon user wrote. “I laughed so hard on a lot of costumes, and I can feel the alliance, the unspoken bitterness, the hopelessness, and the anger. Who is frightened by our laughter?”

Another viral video on X showed someone dressed as Batman walking through a residential area in Shanghai. Rows of police clearing the area formed a human wall behind them.

“Gotham City is becoming a reality,” one person said of the video.

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