China is undergoing a vaccine crisis. Near the end of July, news emerged that a Chinese drug manufacturer, Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology, was marketing unsafe vaccines, which caused an understandable uproar among Chinese citizens. However, out of this scandal emerged a creative use of blockchain to spread information about the crisis after the Chinese government deleted news stories posted on Chinese social media. One user sent about $0.47 worth of ether, a digital asset on the Etherum blockchain, to themselves and added the full text of the story about the unsafe vaccines to the metadata of the transaction, which is generally reserved for notes or other information.

Since the transaction on the Etherum blockchain happened on a public ledger, everyone can view the transaction as well as the associated metadata, which included the full text of the article. In addition to being available publicly, the Chinese government can’t move to censor the transaction information because the Ethereum ledger is decentralized, so they would have no one to pressure to remove the content.

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Ethereum transaction records showing the transfer, with the article content pasted into the metadata

While this is not the first time that Chinese citizens have utilized a public blockchain to transmit information to get around censored content, this is another step forward for the public sharing of information. This past April, a student from Peking University named Yue Zin added an open letter about a sexual assault case to the Etherum blockchain after it was removed from other platforms by Chinese government censors.

The reason for the need to move this information to a space safe from government censors?

Chinese citizens are not able to use a significant number of sites that the rest of the world utilizes often, such as Google, Facebook, and other social media platforms. The Chinese government monitors web content to ensure that information that might be outside of the best interests of the government is not available. In fact, China employs over 40,000 internet monitors whose function is to monitor the internet for content that the government does not want to be made available, and remove it. For example, in addition to being blocked from viewing overseas Chinese news content, Chineese citizens who use Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, aren’t allowed to use words that the government doesn’t approve of, such as “disagree.”

The State Drug Administration (SDA) announced on July 15 that data had been forged for roughly 113,000 doses of the company’s human rabies vaccine. As a result of the data forgery, which was discovered during a surprise inspection, the SDA ordered the Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology company to halt product of the vaccine. In addition to that, it was later determined that the company had sold 252,600 DPT (diphtheria, whopping cough, and tetanus) vaccines classified as “substandard” to Chinese disease control and prevention centers. Those vaccines are given to infants due to a compulsory government vaccination program, and there is no available data on how much of the substandard vaccines were given, or information about what impact the bad vaccines might have on those who received them.

After the news broke, stories written by various bloggers reporting the investigation went viral in the country on sites like WeChat and Weibo. An article titled¬†“King of Vaccines” written by a blogger utilizing the pen name “Beast” was one of the first written, and the content was quickly shared throughout the country. However, within hours, the post disappeared from Chinese social media accounts.

China is launching an investigation into the company as a result of the uproar. Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted as having said, “The violations by Changchun Changsheng Bio-technology are serious and appalling.” A statement later published on a government website quoted Xi as also saying, “We will resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that endanger the safety of peoples’ lives, resolutely punish lawbreakers according to the law, and resolutely and severely criticize dereliction of duty in supervision.”

Chinese police have questioned the company’s chairwoman, Gao Junfang, as well four other senior executives, about the incidents, and the company is facing a fine for the unsafe DPT vaccines.

It does appear that while Chinese censorship is going nowhere, Chinese citizens are finding creative ways to continue to spread information through means of technology such as blockchain that present difficulties for the Chinese government to attempt to censor.

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