In a search for justice, technology is an answer – an incomplete answer – to the question of what is right.
In 1998, when I was a junior in high school, dreading trigonometry class, a world away a young college student in China took her own life after being raped by her teacher. Gao Yan’s classmates were heart-stricken. Now, it has been 20 years since her suicide, and Chinese student activists have attempted to create a memorial, to etch that transgression, that injustice, into the Ethereum blockchain.
It’s an odd, mirrored imprint, because the account encoded in hash 0x2d6a7b0f6adeff38423d4c62cd8b6ccb708ddad85da5d3d06756ad4d8a04a6a2 is actually that of one of the students attempting to draw attention to Gao’s case. The facts of Gao’s incident were not what was written to the blockchain; it was instead the long tail of those horrible actions, and the attempt to bring them to light, that ended up affecting a young woman today.
Here is the story of what happened.
As the #MeToo movement swept the globe, activist Yue Xin and seven other Peking University students were emboldened by the growing trend of unmasking the truth about violence and abuse of power against women. On April 9 of 2018, they bravely petitioned the university to release its findings on the decades-old events around Gao’s rape and subsequent suicide.
Alongside their petition, the student activists called to task the educator accused of the assault (a literature professor by the name of Shen Yang, who denied any crime had been committed).
But then, Yue Xin found herself the unfortunate subject of harassment from Peking University officials, who were intent on denying the petition and keeping the matter of Gao Yan’s 1998 assault under cover, even two decades after the event occurred. (Here is the original report of Yue’s experience, written by Hong Kong journalist Echo Huang.)
According to Yue, she and her mother, who lived together on campus, were intimidated and menaced by the university staff. They called repeatedly, appeared at her door late at night, and brought the young woman into their offices for hours of questioning, keeping her several times “until after midnight.” (The full text of her account can be viewed here, on Etherscan’s own record of the Ethereum block.) They threatened to prevent Yue’s graduation, which profoundly upset her mother. Yue and her mother had to move away from the campus to escape the harassment. Yue’s written account states:
“In the face of [my mother’s] sorrowful cry, self-sacrifice, kneeling requests, and threats of suicide, my heart is bleeding. In her plea, I can only return home temporarily, but I can’t stand back from principle.”
This one incident of Gao’s 1998 rape, and its subsequent suppression over twenty years later, exists as a case study – just one isolated example of the societal repression of what is considered hysterical, undesirable, and problematic about women’s truths.
The attempt to overcome that repression through the use of blockchain technology surprisingly, gratifyingly, didn’t just achieve a small triumph over gender inequality. Whoever wrote Yue’s account to that Ethereum block, dated April 23, 2018 at 7:02:20 a.m. +UTC – that man or woman planted a brave flag against a backdrop of a technology that has heretofore been dominated by men.
The account of Yue Xin and her attempt to memorialize the legacy of Gao Yan, written indelibly to the blockchain, stand as a small monument to progress toward human equality, a notch in the blockchain staking out one unforgettable truth.
Yue Xin’s account of her persecution following her attempts to uncover a 20-year-old injustice, prompted by the #MeToo movement that started in America and now permanently etched into Ethereum, is a sad declaration. But it is also resolutely defiant.
And I am just an observer, to a degree. On the outside looking in, like a fishtank. It feels problematic, to be at this distance, a privileged California white girl, invoking parallels to China, where life is so different. Many women there suffer under both an oppressive regime that attempts to quash any socially distasteful phenomenon or uprising, and also under an enculturated sexism. In the United States, #MeToo also calls abusers to task, but its tone is focused more on unmasking what are, more often, subtler forms of overwriting women’s truths.
But also, there are similarities. Something is off, in both places, and in both places it’s so inextricably woven into the fabric of daily life that any attempt to pick out the threads is an exercise in frustration. The feeling of a subtle, difficult-to-apprehend disadvantage. It feels diffuse and wide, troublesome to point out or to express. In the version of the story told by one of Gao’s friends, Professor Shen Yang started to behave inappropriately toward Gao soon after she became his student. It started with “small friendly gestures, such as giving her a lift to school,” making it confusing to draw a clear boundary. Echo Huang reported:
“Then he invited Gao to his house to talk about her academic work, in the summer of 1996. While Gao was looking at a picture on the desk, Shen suddenly put his arms around Gao from behind and started kissing her. ‘I was so scared, I can hear his breathing in my ear.'”
Maybe encoding this battle over the truth with zeroes and ones isn’t such a bad idea. Maybe it makes something that starts out so innocuously, so difficult to pin down, quantifiable.
Despite the indelible attestation to Ethereum, the point of mission failure is always at the linkage between the technology and the human hand, reaching out; through the application of technology we can model every noble goal conceivable, but the second those noble goals electrically transfer to us, like a live wire, we become unpredictable, chaotic. Agreements and statements encoded on the blockchain are only as good as the “IRL” interactions that follow from them, in China and here across the world. We can state that we want to change, we can write it in an immutable record; but then we actually have to do it, unmediated and of our own volition; a computer can tell us what we should do, our hearts can tell us what’s right, but then we have to take the action. And that is the hardest thing of all.
Lucinda Michele Knapp is a journalist with over fifteen years of experience covering tech, art, and culture in Los Angeles. Her articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and Out Magazine among others. She spins fire, dispenses grammar advice, and knows kung fu.
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