NFTs are put to new use in China, countering censorship during pandemic



  • Internet users are turning to blockchain technology to prevent content including images, videos and social-media posts from disappearing

In most of the world, the market for NFTs is plummeting. In China, nonfungible tokens are on the rise, not as digital-art investments but as a way to strike back at censorship.

As Chinese internet censors have stepped up efforts to scrub content from social media during the pandemic, web users have increasingly turned to NFTs as a way to secure images, videos, audio and social-media posts on a blockchain to prevent their deletion.

On April 22, a six-minute video clip called “Voices of April," overlaid with what appeared to be a dozen audio recordings of conversations and cries for help from Shanghai residents, briefly went viral on Chinese social media before censors deleted it.

To prevent a piece of history from being erased, many internet users minted copies of the video into NFTs.

All told, around 250 NFTS labeled as siyuezhisheng, for “Voices of April," are now listed on OpenSea, one of the world’s largest NFT marketplaces. Many have no price tag or are priced very low, a sign they aren’t really intended for sale. One is listed for 404 ethereum, which on Friday was the equivalent of around $800,000, in an apparent reference to the “not found" error message that can appear when content is removed.

OpenSea also hosts NFTs of photos, videos, audio recordings and memes capturing the experiences of recent lockdowns in China.

“Our ordeal should be remembered," said Dereck Yi, an in-house attorney at a Shanghai-based tech company who has minted dozens of NFTs related to the Shanghai lockdown, including a “Voices of April" copy. “There’s nothing we can do other than remember the hunger, anger, hopelessness and absurdity we have experienced."

Mr. Yi didn’t put a price tag on his NFTs, saying he wants to preserve memories. “Memories are not for sale," he said.

The use of NFTs is part of a broader move among Chinese internet users to circumvent censorship of sensitive information by preserving it on blockchains.

A blockchain uses a distributed network of computers to agree on a record of information, which makes it exceedingly difficult for the record to be tampered with or destroyed. Blockchains are most commonly associated with bitcoin, though businesses, including in China, also use them for various kinds of record-keeping. With the exception of China, and, to a smaller extent, Russia, experts say they haven’t seen blockchains used to counter censorship.

“In the West, when you talk to people about the technology, it’s quasitheoretical," said Sam Williams, co-founder and chief executive of Arweave, a blockchain-based storage system. “But in China, it’s an immediately practical machine."

On the same day people were minting NFTs of the “Voices of April" video clip, many others raced to save it on Arweave. One application for doing so saw a 40-fold surge in traffic, said Mr. Williams.

A traffic surge also occurred near the beginning of the pandemic, he said, after the death of Li Wenliang, a medical doctor who was reprimanded by authorities for early warnings about Covid-19. Dr. Li’s death from the virus triggered an outpouring of emotion and frustration on Chinese social media for several hours before the posts were deleted.

There were several other efforts to protect Dr. Li’s legacy, including a digital illustration of a tombstone on the ethereum blockchain, and an NFT project, led by Initium Media, an independent Chinese-language online publication, visualizing the more than 730,000 comments Chinese web users left on Dr. Li’s account on the Weibo social-media platform after his death.

Content creators have turned to blockchains as well as a defense against censorship. One Chinese podcaster said her team is backing up podcasts on Arweave and working with app developers to make that easier to do for other Chinese podcasters. Arweave users in China are developing a plug-in that archives Weibo posts, Mr. Williams said.

Meanwhile, platforms for publishing content on blockchains have grown in popularity.

Guo Liu, the co-founder and chief technology officer of, a blockchain-based Chinese-language publishing platform, said the website has amassed 100,000 writers since its founding in 2018, even though, like OpenSea, is blocked in China. Users get around such obstacles in part by turning to virtual private networks, or VPNs.

Kin Ko, the founder of LikeCoin, a blockchain-based publishing platform that started in 2017, says some 8,000 websites now use its WordPress plug-in to preserve their content.

Among the roughly two million pieces of content stored are articles from Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong that the government shut down last year, after the passage of the National Security Law.

“If you have an article, as long as you think it’s important enough to be stored permanently as human history, you can do that," Mr. Ko said.

In Hong Kong, other efforts have sought to back up media and nonprofit archives on blockchains over the past two years, said one activist, though they have faced concerns over the political risks of leaving a record behind in an environment in which a large number of pro-democracy activists have been detained.

“Some people don’t want their content stored permanently because they are already in danger," the activist said.

Preserving information on blockchains is costly, both financially and in terms of computer power. The expense is part of the reason NFTs have become a common tool for storing data-rich files such as images and videos.

Rather than storing an image or video file directly, an NFT in most cases simply stores the metadata on the blockchain, with a pointer to a traditional server where the file is actually held.

Blockchain experts warn, however, that while that has made blockchain storage more accessible, NFTs alone don’t have the ability to protect content from being censored. If the original file is taken down from the traditional server for any reason, the NFT would still point to the file’s original location but return a 404 error.

Fundamentally, the best way to prevent content from disappearing is to create “many copies of it around the world, so if someone wants to take it down, they’d have to go to all of the people hosting those copies," said Neha Narula, the director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab who studies cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies.

Platforms such as and LikeCoin get around this by using NFTs in conjunction with a suite of other technologies, such as Arweave and InterPlanetary File System, which help scatter and keep track of copies of pieces of content globally. The NFT would then point not to a single server but to many.

Mr. Liu of said that ultimately, NFTs such as “Voices of April" serve more as a symbol. Most people in China remain unaware of them. He doesn’t see blockchain-based censorship-resistance tools as becoming mainstream in the near future, but believes the demand for them is likely to increase.“ Many of us are exploring ways to push it forward," he said.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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