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Chinese youths use Halloween cosplay to express dissent

People make 'their voices heard without crossing the government's red lines'

A costumed reveler walks through Found 158, an area of bars, clubs and restaurants in the district of Huangpu, in Shanghai, Oct. 27, 2023.

A costumed reveler walks through Found 158, an area of bars, clubs and restaurants in the district of Huangpu, in Shanghai, Oct. 27, 2023. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP)

Published: November 03, 2023 06:22 AM GMT

Updated: November 03, 2023 06:39 AM GMT

Young people in several Chinese cities defied state disapproval of Western festivals and marched through the streets donning Halloween costumes as an expression of their dissent against the communist regime.

In Shanghai, China’s largest city and major financial hub, Halloween revelers gathered on streets dressed up as ghosts and Chinese-style corpse brides, and the white-clad enforcers of the zero-Covid lockdowns, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Nov. 1.  

Some people also dressed up as Winnie-the-Pooh — a figure banned by the authorities due to the cartoon bear's reported resemblance to President Xi Jinping,

A Halloween reveler identifying himself as Qi Ao said that some people were “making their voices heard without crossing the government's red lines.”

"These are people who have always wanted to express themselves, so now they are making a political point through Halloween," Qi said.

Some of revelers also dressed as Covid-19 testing staff while sporting head-to-toe white hazmat suits, wielding coronavirus testing swabs, and dispensing hand sanitizer to passers-by, in a jovial nod to the horrors and anguish experienced by many in the city under its 2022 lockdown.

Other costumes included ghosts, cartoon characters, and superheroes among others.

A participant was dressed as China’s “Lipstick King” Austin Lee who drew social media wrath in 2020 over disparaging remarks to an audience member who had termed his Florasis brand eyebrow pencil, selling at 79 yuan (US$10.80), as “too expensive.”

Li had told the audience member that she should ask herself if she was “working hard enough,” and when she last got a raise — sparking a deluge of angry reactions online.

A form of “political deconstruction”

A Hangzhou city resident identifying himself as Ge Ping said that dressing up makes a point that the person in costume has chosen to disregard conservative mainstream ideas, even if it's just for one night.

"It's a form of political deconstruction — it's a bit like toad worship," Ge said referring to online memes that depict former Chinese president Jiang Zemin as a toad in large-framed spectacles.

"That's been around for more than 10 years,” Ge added.

Ge emphasized that the "political deconstruction" referred to by him was an indirect expression of public dissatisfaction with those in power.

"Things are so tense in China right now,” Ge said, adding that in Taiwan “politicians all appear on talk shows, but in China, we have to rely on such things [as cosplay] for our deconstruction."

"Everyone has been under pressure due to the pandemic ... I think it's a continuation of that," Ge added.

Ge also said that streets seemed "deserted" despite the festivities all around and most people refrained from speaking about politics and chose to sell products online and build their followers through live streaming.

"People here don't talk [about] politics much — they're more into selling stuff and live streams. Shanghai is different — there are a lot of foreigners there and a lot of young people," Ge added.

No positive changes

A former Shanghai resident who identified herself by the name Emily said that the socio-political atmosphere in China has not changed at all.

"The pandemic controls may have been lifted, but nothing has really changed for the better, not the political atmosphere, not freedom of speech, not the economy, nor people's ability to make a living," Emily said.

She also pointed out the cultural shock that many face when they return to live in Shanghai after their studies or employment abroad.

"Anyone who has studied or lived overseas has experienced [a] normal life, so they may not be used to the way things work when they get back to Shanghai," Emily said.

She said that those living abroad, including in the United States, often refrain from saying anything critical about China.

"Most people I know are far more willing to say good things about China. Maybe they have no choice because they [must] go back there." 

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