How a Chinese Activist Used Blockchain to Make a #MeToo Letter Undeletable


2018-04-27
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beida-posters-04242018.jpg A three-page "big character poster" appeared on an official noticeboard of the Communist Party Youth League on the Peking University main campus, denouncing the university handling of student Yue Xin, April 23, 2018.
Courtesy of an RFA listener.

Online activists in China employed "blockchain" technology used to encrypt currencies like Bitcoin to ensure that an open letter asking for answers about a decades-old rape-and-suicide case was undeletable from China's tightly controlled internet.

Yue Xin, a final-year student at China's prestigious Peking University, was among eight students who lodged a freedom-of-information request with college authorities on Apr. 9 asking for information on its historical handling of an allegation made 20 years ago against former lecturer Shen Yang—that he raped a student who later committed suicide.

Publicly, Peking University issued a statement saying it "attached great importance" to the conduct of its staff, and that the university's ethics committee would review the request.

But privately, the university ramped up the pressure on the students, sending Yue home and threatening to prevent her from graduating if she continues to speak out.

Tweets, posts and comments were quickly deleted by ruling Chinese Communist Party censors keen to nip what they saw as a nascent student movement in the bud.

As Yue was repeatedly called in for "chats" with university staff and forced to delete all mention of her campaign from her personal devices, fellow #MeToo activists turned to blockchain to ensure her message was still visible to China's more than 730 million internet users.

But an anonymous user stamped her account of the incident onto the Ethereum blockchain, meaning that it can never be erased or altered.

A QR code circulating on Twitter quickly revealed the URL of the letter's location on Friday. The page shows a series of coded data about the user and the transaction, and a text box full of encrypted alphanumeric symbols, which can be converted to normal text by pressing a button marked "Convert To UT8."

The button reveals both English and Chinese versions of Yue's Apr. 23 letter detailing her experiences since she raised the 1998 rape allegations made against Shen Yang by former student Gao Yan, and Gao's subsequent suicide.

Chinese activists seldom get the opportunity to defeat government censorship in front of the international community, and the use of blockchain offers hope to rights activists and dissidents under the administration of President Xi Jinping that there is still an online space in which their voices may be heard.

Social media

Back on social media, users have also resorted to distorting or flipping screenshots of her letter to bypass object recognition features on social media sites like WeChat, while some protesters have put ink brush to paper and pinned up "big character posters" in a time-honored Chinese tradition of protest.

Social media posts have urged students to "protect themselves" from official retaliation by distancing themselves from the #MeToo movement, and from the outcry over the 1998 suicide of Gao Yan, indicating that the Beida Communist Party committee views the movement as a student movement with parallels to the student outrage of the May Fourth movements of the early 20th century.

Sulaiman Gu, a Chinese rights activist currently studying chemistry at the University of Georgia in the United States, said some of his friends have used blockchain to protect their online statements, too.

"Whether we are talking about Bitcoin or Ethereum, these are all non-government, unstructured virtual technologies, and a virtual technology world is naturally anti-institutional," Gu told RFA. "It's close to freedom."

But because blockchain provides a viable channel for free speech, Gu expects the Chinese government to start blocking such technologies from users inside the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.

"They can cut off the internet just like that," Gu said. "We have seen this happen when politically sensitive incidents occur and in certain politically sensitive areas, where they often use disconnection as a means [to ensure control]."

"[When they do that], you can't get anything, not the internet, not mobile phone networks. Nothing," he said.

A WeChat group titled "Blockchain Base Camp" saw a post appear soon after Yue's letter appeared on the Ethereum blockchain, which said: "This morning, our small world of blockchain was shaken by a college student surnamed Yue."

The story of Gao Yan came to light as the #MeToo sexual harassment and assault violence began to go viral in China, leading to a number of high-profile allegations, many leveled against university lecturers in positions of power over their students.

Reported by Jia Ao for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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