Did Beijing censors just turn off WeChat’s blockchain app?

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Paramilitary police raise fists to the Communist Party of China flag. Photo: Reuters/China Daily

Late last month China’s MeToo movement turned to blockchain to avoid Beijing’s censors. Yesterday a new blockchain app called Xiao Xieyi – ‘Mini Protocol’ in English – launched on WeChat, China’s billion-plus social network platform. In less than a day it was suspended.

Are the two things unrelated?

WeChat and its owner, tech conglomerate Tencent, have yet to comment on why the app has been suspended. But a link to the service’s landing page leads to a message from WeChat that says “Mini Protocol is now being suspended because this type of service is not yet authorized by the platform.”

While Beijing has been mighty wary of crypto-currencies, it has fully embraced blockchain technology and has supported blockchain-related industrial parks, finance and trade platforms and even the “One Belt, One Road, One Chain” blockchain consortium.

Given this, increasing numbers of commentators have said how blockchain will help content creators, big and small, sidestep China’s strict laws that require all forms of publishing to receive prior approval from Beijing’s censors at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

“Chinese internet users,” wrote blockchain content specialist Matej Michalko in Forbes in December 2017, “undoubtedly have reason to be excited about the promise of online blockchain publishing. The technology’s decentralized nature might enable easier ways to publish various types of content online. Users within a blockchain network are able to connect with each other directly to side-step centralized organizations. An author’s work can be published quickly and securely, without any third party control or regulations.”

That’s all very true. Unless, of course, Beijing decides to turn it off.

At the end of April, a flurry of stories appeared about how Chinese student activists were upset that MeToo movement posts about alleged cases of sexual harassment and assault were being pulled down, by censors, from WeChat, Weibo and other social networks.

The focus became a supposed cover-up at the prestigious Peking University over an alleged sexual assault on a college student – her name was Gao Yan and she committed suicide in 1998 – by a professor who remained a member of the faculty for years after. Following other actions from the global #MeToo movement, students started calling for the University to investigate and, when they felt their posts were being censored, turned to blockchain and published material about the alleged assault. They used the metadata “notes” section on an ethereum blockchain record, which meant it was both permanent and free for all to view.

“For activists evading censorship,” wrote Quartz at the time, “the key advantage of… blockchain is it offers permanence. While online censors can cut access to certain websites and coerce social media companies to censor posts, it’s nearly impossible to alter a popular public blockchain like ethereum’s or bitcoin’s.”

The Mini Protocol app promised to be one of the first attempts at rolling out blockchain technology to a mass Chinese audience. In lasted less than a day.

So what’s the weakest link in blockchain?

Please contact us with feedback, news or stories: thechain@atimes.com

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