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Frustrated Shanghainese turn to NFTs during Covid lockdown

Shanghai residents are using the blockchain to preserve memories of the city’s month-long Covid-19 lockdown, minting non-fungible tokens to ensure that movies, images, and artworks recording their trauma can be shared and avoided destruction.

Many of the city’s 25 million citizens, unable to leave their homes for weeks at a time, have vented their displeasure online, complaining about harsh lockdown limitations and food shortages, and posting stories of hardship, such as patients unable to receive medical treatment.

This has heightened the cat-and-mouse game between Chinese censors and the public, who have pledged to tighten internet and group chat policing to prevent “rumours” and “attempts to stir discontent over the closure.”

While some people have defiantly continued to repost such content, others are flocking to NFT markets like as OpenSea, the world’s largest, where users may mint content and purchase or sell it with cryptocurrency, lured in part by the fact that data stored on the blockchain is unalterable.

The pinnacle of Shanghai’s shutdown was on April 22, when netizens battled censors overnight to post a six-minute film called “The Voice of April,” a compilation of voices recorded throughout the Shanghai epidemic.

Earlier this week, there were 786 separate items relating to the video on OpenSea, along with hundreds of other NFTs related to the Shanghai lockdown. “I have turned the ‘Voice of April’ video into an NFT and have frozen its metadata,” a Chinese Twitter user with the handle imFong declared in a highly circulated post on April 23. The interplanetary file system, a form of distributed network, will keep this film alive indefinitely.

Twitter, like most other major foreign social media and news platforms, is restricted in China, though locals can use VPNs to access it. According to Reuters, a Shanghai-based programmer was among others in the city who saw their efforts to keep the video alive as part of a “people’s insurrection.” He’s created his own NFT using a screenshot of Shanghai’s Covid lockdown map, which shows how the city has been blocked off from the outside world for the most part. “Being stuck at home due to the epidemic gives me a lot of free time,” he added on the condition of anonymity.

Weibo posts about the curbs, photographs from inside quarantine centres, and works of art inspired by life under lockdown are among the other Shanghai content offered on OpenSea as NFTs for sale. Simon Fong, a 49-year-old Malaysian freelance designer who has lived in Shanghai for nine years, began drawing humorous cartoons in the style of Mao-era propaganda posters about life under lockdown. After dabbling in the market since late last year, he began minting them into NFTs and has already sold nine of his works for an average price of 0.1 ether (US$290).

Scenes depicting PCR testing, as well as locals’ demands for government handouts, are among his works. “I picked the Mao-era propaganda style for these paintings because some individuals are claiming that the lockdown is regressing Shanghai,” Fong explained.

While China has prohibited cryptocurrency trading, it regards blockchain as a promising technology, and NFTs have gained traction in the country, with state media outlets and even big corporations such as Ant Group and Tencent Holdings supporting them. The long-term shutdown in Shanghai, China’s financial centre, is part of Beijing’s divisive zero-Covid agenda, which is posing mounting concerns to the country’s economy. The Covid outbreak in Shanghai, which began in March, is the deadliest in China since the pandemic’s early months in 2020. Hundreds of thousands of people in the city have been infected.