How the Ethereum Blockchain Became a Tool in the Fight for China’s #MeToo Movement

In the face of state censorship, a Chinese activist turned to the Ethereum blockchain to ensure an open letter from a university student lived on permanently.

Shanghai, China

The Story of Gao Yan and #MeToo in China

In 1995, Gao Yan began her major in Chinese Literature at Peking University in Beijing, one of the oldest and most prestigious academic institutions in the country. In 1996, her professor Shen Yang allegedly raped Gao during a study session. Two years of assault, rape, and abuse followed, including rumors by Shen describing Gao as mentally and emotionally unstable. After years of assault and social abuse, Gao committed suicide in 1998 at the age of 21.

Gao Yan’s story remained largely forgotten until April 5, 2018, when an old classmate of hers, Li Youyou, wrote a blog post celebrating her friend’s memory. Li, who lives in Canada, published the post on Tomb Sweeping Day, a Chinese holiday during which friends and family remember lost loved ones. In her post, Li detailed the allegations against Shen, including the initial and subsequent rapes, the rumors of mental illness, and the lack of sufficient response from Peking University.

Li’s post came on the heels of months of global activism surrounding the #MeToo movement. #MeToo began in October 2017 as a social media movement against sexual harassment and abuse, achieved by encouraging women to share on social media their past experiences with sexual assault. Beginning in the US, the movement quickly gained traction internationally. In China, however, the movement collided with state-sanctioned restrictions on permitted speech and internet use. As the Chinese government shut down conversations and removed posts about #MeToo on China’s two most popular social media apps WeChat and Weibo, social media users innovated. #IAmAlso (我也是) and #RiceBunny (米兔) became popular tags as activists struggled to keep the movement strong (“rice bunny” in Chinese is pronounced similar to “me too” in English).

Li Youyou’s post about Gao’s abuse, the institution’s apparent lack of response, and the emotional damage of social persecution resonated strongly with the fledgling #MeToo movement in China. In the days following, implicated universities responded to the outcry in varying degrees. Shen, now 62, had left Peking University in 2011 and started teaching at Nanjing University and part-time at Shanghai Normal University. Days after Li’s post, both universities dismissed and severed ties with Shen — though both maintain they were never made aware of past accusations against the professor when they hired him.

On April 9th, a former student named Xu Hongyun also accused Shen of sexual harassment. Her claims were published on the Chinese news site Caixin, but state censors swiftly demanded the site take down the article. 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 event. Peking University published documents showing that Shen had been charged with “ethical misconduct” after Gao committed suicide, though the penalty did not carry much more than a slap on the wrist.

Yue Xin’s Letter

Despite their public actions, behind the scenes, universities’ reactions to calls from students and former students was marred by state censorship and cultural gender norms. On April 23, Peking University student Yue Xin — one of the eight students who originally petitioned the university on the 9th — published an open letter on WeChat describing her behind-the-scenes experience with the university during the few weeks since the freedom of information request.

“Battling exhaustion” to write her account, Yue describes how she had been in constant discussion with faculty and leadership. According to her account, university leadership had repeatedly threatened her chances of graduation, insisted her parents would be ashamed of her, and reiterated they could contact her family directly without her consent.

Yue’s letter recounts how, on April 20th, she finally received the following information from the university regarding Gao Yen’s case. First, in 1998, the university considered the meeting held to discuss Shen Yang’s actions of too low priority to have minutes recorded, so no specific records existed. Additionally, another report on the case by the Public Security Bureau was outside of the school’s jurisdiction and therefore inaccessible. Finally, because of a clerical error by the Department of Chinese, the text of Shen’s public emission could not be located. Needless to say, Yue was unsatisfied with the response from the university.

On April 23 at 1:00am, Yue’s advisor entered her dormitory without warning and woke her up. Her advisor demanded she erase all information regarding the information freedom request from all her devices and report to the Office of Student Affairs in the morning to swear in writing she would no longer pursue the matter. Yue was taken home by her parents and barred from returning to campus. According to Yue, the school called her parents directly and threatened to take her diploma away, intimidating and scaring them to the point of hysteria.

In conclusion, the letter lists six appeals from Yue to Peking University

  1. The university should explain the regulations under which they had the right to pressure her parents, force a meeting at her dormitory at 1:00am, and demand she delete all information about Gao’s case from her devices.
  2. The university should immediately stop contacting her family and issue a formal apology and reassurance to her mother.
  3. The university should confirm the incidents of April 2018 would not affect her graduation or final thesis.
  4. The university bears the responsibility of clearing Yue from any possible negative effects the incidents might have on studies, future employment, and family affairs.
  5. The university should respond to the incidents and make it available to anyone concerned.
  6. Yue will retain all rights to further investigate any wrongdoing by the university.
Peking University Library | Gao Yan, student 1995–1998

Response to Yue’s Letter

Chinese social media users, already devoted to Gao’s story by Li Youyou’s post, rallied behind Yue Xin. State censors, however, were fast at work. Citizens noticed pictures, transcriptions, and references to Yue’s open letter quickly began disappearing from WeChat and Weibo. Accustomed to innovating, social media users posted photos of the letter upside down and sideways to evade and outrun automatic censors. Allegedly, a censorship order was issued to media companies from government officials, instructing them:

“Do not report on the Peking University open letter incident, or republish or hype related articles from authoritative media. Content expressing so-called solidarity must not be shared from personal social media accounts.”

As censorship bodies worked to wipe Yue’s letter and quell the #MeToo conversation, however, Ethereum came into play. On April 23, an unidentified individual sent a transaction from and to an identical address on the blockchain for $0 worth of ETH (the transaction fee was ~$0.50). The transaction included, however, a full transcription of Yue Xin’s letter in the metadata.

The Ethereum public blockchain is transparent and visible to everyone. The existence of the letter was swiftly recognized, and support began pouring in. On April 25th, a second transaction was sent to the original receiving address, but this time from an external address. The data input said simply:

“Disappointed by the official statement of Peking University, hope PKU will not stand on the wrong side of this issue. Keep strong! — Anonymous, in Tsinghua University.”

Other transactions followed, voicing support from other universities in Asia, the US, and elsewhere. A discussion, facilitated by blockchain transactions, grew around the record of Yue Xin’s letter, voicing support and building an online community of sorts.

The significance of this transaction cannot be understated. In the face of restrictions on sanctioned speech, blockchain technology was leveraged to ensure the letter would, quite literally, never disappear. Immutability and permanence is a core tenet of blockchain technology. Once mined into existence, a block (which includes transactions such as the one with Yue Xin’s letter) cannot be deleted. If the data within the transaction is changed in a later block, a permanent record of the change would exist, and anyone could trace the letter back to its original state. Though state censors have intercepted references to the letter’s existence on Ethereum — including removing links to the original record — the fact remains that the letter can never be censored out of existence. Moreover, blockchain technology was not just used to send data. In this case, a conversation was sparked and maintained through a series of 0 ETH transactions. Though certainly not the most effective manner of conversing over the internet, the incident demonstrates that people unable to rely on free speech recognize the social potential of blockchain technology.

Looking Ahead

The utility of Ethereum and blockchain technology in countries and communities affected by restrictive governments or desparate circumstances extends beyond free speech. Consider the growing reliance of Venezuelans on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in the face of dire economic and social instability. Or the UN-founded blockchain platform providing Syrian refugees with a way to re-establish identity and lowering the cost of financial aid by 98%. Micro-financing has long been touted as a way to financially empower the un- and underbanked; blockchain technology provides the most seamless and low-cost access to micro-financing services.

Tangible and intangible borders will continue to shift and dissolve as the world grows more interconnected. The comments on Ethereum in response to the original transaction demonstrate vividly that the blockchain community can exist and grow outside the realms of traditional country borders and government firewalls. As Chinese social media users fight to continue the conversation about sexual assault, women’s rights, and other social concerns, they may have found in Ethereum a solution to persistent government censors. Yue Xin’s letter demonstrates the various use cases and potential applications of blockchain technology — and will likely not be the last.