How Ethereum helped memorialise the #MeToo movement in China
Schooled by Breach is a weekly newsletter where Breach writer, Adetomiwa talks to people with experience about pressing crypto questions, learns a lesson and shares the findings with you. Crypto can be easy, so let’s figure it out together. Out every Friday!
Our previous episodes of this 5-part Schooled by Breach have been about conflicts and wars within entire countries, but this final edition is slightly different. It covers China’s version of the global Me Too movement and how people in the country used blockchain technology to innovate around censorship.
Do you remember the Me Too movement in 2017? A time when people around the world were calling out sexual abusers? For perhaps the first time in history, there were mass persecutions of multiple sexual abusers who, until then, had faced very few consequences for their offences.
The movement garnered more support in some countries than in others. In places like China, where they’re no stranger to censorship, people reporting their cases and expressions of support were largely frowned upon.
Since China doesn’t allow citizens to use mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook, they have their own state-approved social media outlets like WeChat. At the height of the social media #MeToo hashtag, authorities blocked any posts showing support for victims of sexual assault on social media platforms. So the supporters got creative and innovated by creating modified versions of the popular hashtag.
The determination to support victims prompted the reopening of a closed and forgotten case over 20 years ago.
What happened 20 years ago? (Trigger warning: rape and suicide)
In 1996, a year after she started her major in Chinese Literature at Peking University in Beijing, 18-year-old Gao Yan reported that her professor, Shen Yang, raped her during a study session. Reports say to cover his tracks, Shen started rumours that Gao was mentally and emotionally unstable. The rumours not only got Gao’s case dismissed, but they also made her an outcast, and after years of assault and social abuse, Gao committed suicide in 1998. She was 21.
Gao’s story remained largely untold until the wake of Me Too in 2018, when an old friend and classmate of hers who now lives in Canada, Li Youyou, wrote a blog post in her memory. The blog post detailed Gao’s trauma: Shen lured Gao into his apartment for “academic discussions” and assaulted her there, and when she reported him, he spread rumours about her.
Days after the article was published, support for Gao poured from within and outside Peking University. The heat was so intense that Shen, 62 at the time, lost his job at Nanjing University and Shanghai Normal University.
That wasn’t Shen’s only sexual assault accusation
Inspired by Li’s post, Xu Hongyun, another former student of Shen’s, published an article on the Chinese news site Caixin, revealing that she too, had been sexually assaulted by the teacher. However, unlike Li’s article, Xu’s was published within China and well within reach of the country’s tight censorship rules.
The authorities immediately took down Xu’s article, and every reference to it was removed from public spaces. But citizens weren’t having it. On the same day, eight students of Peking University submitted to the institution a “freedom of information” request for the school’s full records of the 1998 events so the public could know exactly what happened at Peking and how the university handled it.
But according to Yue Xin, one of the eight students who submitted the petition, Peking University did everything to get that petition cancelled.
Two weeks after the petition, Yue published an open letter on WeChat, written in Chinese and English. In it, Yue shared that she hadn’t been able to return to school since authorities came into her dorm in the middle of the night and sent her home to her parents. Her letter said teachers repeatedly told her to “drop the case so [she] can graduate successfully”. She said they harassed her family and twisted the truth so much that it caused conflicts between her and her mother.
The original post went viral on WeChat, a platform that is heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities, so of course, it could have been deleted within minutes of Yue publishing it. And it was.
Chinese social media users who were following the start began to notice pictures, transcriptions, and references to Yue’s open letter quickly disappear from WeChat. Reports also claim that the Chinese government sent a censorship order to media houses, instructing them to take down and not publish anything about the letter. It said, “Do not report on the Peking University open letter incident or republish related articles from authoritative media”.
The government was working hard, but citizens were working harder.
To evade and outrun automatic censors, people started reporting Yue’s letter upside down, sideways and with special characters. But that could only go so far. Finally, a still unknown person who saw it published in a harder-to-erase spot where it could potentially never be removed: the Ethereum blockchain.
How did they do it?
They sent a transaction to the same Ethereum address for $0 worth of Ethereum (the gas fee was about $1.86). Within the transaction, they added a copy of Yue’s letter as the description.
Since the blockchain is transparent and visible to everyone, anyone can access both the English and Chinese versions of Yue’s letter here by choosing one of the three “view as” options.
Yue Xin and the other activists’ determination got a response from the university. They soon released a statement where they admitted that they did nothing when Gao reported Shen, but after her suicide, they charged him for “ethical misconduct”. They claimed that all actual material was “missing”, but we do know that the penalty was inconsequential as Shen taught at the university until 2011 and went on to have more jobs.
But Yue’s life in China was forever at risk. Yue was one of 50 activists in the student-led activist group, Jasic Workers Solidarity group in 2018. After the arrest, she was never again seen in public. In January of 2019, the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group stated on their website that the police had forced Yue and four members to record confessions admitting to “conducting illegal acts” and “being brainwashed by radical organisations”. They forced other members to watch the confession videos.
Yue Xin, 23 at the time of her arrest, is still missing.
It’s scary to think that perhaps the world wouldn’t know Yue’s or Gao’s story had the anonymous user not transferred Yuen’s statement to the Ethereum blockchain.
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