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article image#MeToo activists use blockchain to skirt China censors

By Poornima WEERASEKARA (AFP)     Apr 27, 2018 in Technology

Attempts to silence a student who drew attention to sexual abuse allegations at a Chinese university have inspired tech-savvy activists to use blockchain technology to dodge censors and keep the fledgling #MeToo movement alive.

The uproar began when a student wrote an open letter this week accusing a staff member at Peking University of trying to intimidate her over a petition she launched urging the school to make public an investigation into a 1998 sexual abuse case.

The student's missive was quickly taken down from Chinese social media after it went viral, only to resurface on the blockchain service Ethereum on Monday night, attracting hundreds of comments that are virtually unassailable.

"This is how we use technology to (fight) against brutal tyranny," said one commenter, while others hailed it as a "historic moment".

The #MeToo movement has been concentrated in university campuses in China, and the authorities have tolerated some social media commentary about sexual harassment allegations in recent months.

But the furore over the Peking University case appears to have been too much for censors. A search for the student's name on the popular Weibo microblogging platform yields no results.

Yue Xin, a foreign languages student, co-authored a petition with around 20 others demanding the university release details of the probe into allegations a student was driven to suicide after being sexually abused by a professor.

The professor, who now teaches at Nanjing University in eastern China, was suspended pending the investigation after the allegations emerged earlier this month.

In her open letter, Yue said a student adviser came to her dorm at about 1:00 am (1700 GMT Saturday) on Sunday, with Yue's "terrified" mother in tow, and demanded she delete all information related to the petition from her phone and laptop.

Yue wrote she had also received veiled threats from university officials over whether she would be allowed to graduate.

She said the university's actions had caused her mother to have an "emotional meltdown," and had "broken their relationship."

"When I saw my mother crying, slapping her face, falling on her knees, and threatening to commit suicide, my heart was bleeding," she said in her letter.

- 'Symbolic move' -

Chinese social media users often find roundabout ways to avoid censors. In this case, some resorted to posting a photo of the letter upside down to avoid detection technology.

The text has also found an impregnable home in the hard-to-crack blockchain -- a technology usually associated with cryptocurrencies.

A blockchain is essentially a shared, encrypted "ledger" that cannot be manipulated.

But finding the letter is not easy. It is attached to a transaction viewable on a link.

Seeing the letter requires downloading the entire blockchain and searching for it with special software tools, said Leonhard Weese, president of The Bitcoin Association of Hong Kong.

Embedding her message into a blockchain is "largely a symbolic move", Weese said.

"It's true that this message cannot be deleted (or altered) from a blockchain, because all participants of the network will be forced to store it forever, but this won't help in spreading the message," he said.

But censors would struggle to delete the nearly 300 comments that have appeared so far.

Everyone who is part of the blockchain has to keep a copy of the transaction, creating multiple copies in thousands of computers, Weese said.

- 'Unjust treatment' -

Yue's treatment has angered her peers.

An open letter said to be from students and faculty dated Wednesday condemned the school's "unjust treatment" of Yue. It has circulated on the WeChat messaging app.

Students and alumni have vowed to boycott the university's 120th anniversary celebration next month.

"My friends and I feel disgusted. There is no reason for the school not to reveal information about the ongoing investigation," an undergraduate student from Peking University, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

"We don't accept the school's claim that student protesters are manipulated by external forces."

Yue and Peking University did not respond to requests for a comment.

The School of Foreign Languages said in a statement on Monday that the councillor called Yue's mother "out of concern" after they were unable to reach her on Sunday.

Yue was not the first student to be speak out about the case.

Another student from Peking university, Deng Yuhao, wrote on WeChat that he was summoned by university authorities at midnight on April 7 after he penned a letter with others demanding transparency on the same 1998 case. His message has since been deleted.

Similar cases of students being called in for questioning after signing online petitions related to other sexual harassment cases have emerged at other universities, according to Chinese feminist activist Xiao Meili.

Officials at her alma mater Communication University of China had asked students whether they were "influenced by foreign forces" when they penned a letter raising concerns about campus abuse, she told AFP.

"Chinese universities are wasting time clamping down on students instead of tackling the issue of sexual harassment," she said.

More about China, Assault, Censorship, metoo
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