China’s recent multi-front embrace of blockchain technology has divided the global cryptocurrency community. While some see it as helpful validation, others worry that crypto is diverging further from its anti-authoritarian roots.
Authorities in China have long discouraged investment in grassroots cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. But the world’s most populous country is making significant progress with plans for a national cryptocurrency that could increase the government’s surveillance powers over the economy.
CoinDesk spoke with one anonymous bitcoiner who grew up in China and has since moved elsewhere in East Asia. Far from seeing blockchain “adoption” as a march toward liberation, he expects the government to use such technologies to increase its control over the population. After all, the propaganda office for China’s Communist Party announced a blockchain-based application over the weekend that allows members to pledge their allegiance to the party.
Given China’s mass detention centers currently being used to “re-educate” over a million Chinese Muslims, this bitcoiner feared local minorities will face even harsher conditions under a fully integrated financial system controlled by the government.
What follows is a condensed transcript of the interview with this greybeard bitcoiner, a programmer who started following the project in 2014.
The text has been edited for clarity. We agreed to keep the identity of this person secret because he feared repercussions for his family.
Q: What do you think about the recent “pro-blockchain” announcements coming out of China?
It terrifies the crap out of me.
Crypto is technology is just like nuclear fusion is just technology: You can use it to create nuclear generators that might benefit a lot of humanity, or you can use it to create atomic bombs. We do need to think about ethics when it comes to these things.
If the value is something a totalitarian state can take hold of and use to track every single person and what they’re doing, enforcing the strictest currency controls, then this is what they are going to do.
Q: Why do you think there are so many people celebrating such news this as a positive indicator for “adoption” in the crypto community?
People in East Asia are very comfortable with the idea that the government is like our parents, that they’ll take care of us.
Even if they read novels like Brave New World or 1984, the world to them is OK for the most part. But the few people who want to act in a way that the government does not agree with will be persecuted.
My parents have been [Christian] missionaries for about 18 years now, and being a missionary is outlawed in China. Our phones were getting tapped, our computer was getting hacked. My parents’ names were on the Chinese police blacklist. People like my parents are called terrorists or Tibetan freedom fighters.
In China, there’s very strict capital controls. So when I read about bitcoin, it was like, “This is a great way to store money with real censorship resistance.”
Q: How did you guys live under such constant surveillance?
We had very specific protocols for operational security. For example, when we’re talking over the phone or email, we switch out all sensitive words and make sure our servers are not located in China.
My parents once had their WePay and AliPay accounts cut off. But luckily they had cash, fiat currency and physical cash so they could live. If China had been 100 percent digital, there would have been no way for them to survive.
Q: How does your family use (relatively) decentralized blockchain technology today?
I don’t send my parents money in crypto. But my biggest fear growing up was that my parents would be deported. In China, after they tell you that you need to leave the country, you need to liquidate all your assets in 48 hours. We used to practice this thing where we’d pack everything we have in less than 48 hours. It was kind of like our drill.
Right now, all my parents’ assets are in crypto. As long as there’s one of us, somewhere in the world with access to our private key, our wealth is OK. It’s still very difficult for my parents to access their crypto, though. They can’t do it by themselves. They definitely need my help. That’s why I hold most of their stuff. In that way, accessibility [with crypto] is still lacking, even if it provides a store of value. And my parents don’t really understand crypto the way they understand banking services.
At the end of the day, censorship resistance is not enough. We need a private way of transacting and a way to make it accessible, understandable to everyone. We’re not there yet.
China surveillance image via Shutterstock