Cops Shut Down China’s Web3 ‘Burning Man,’ Organizers Don’t Back Down

Cops Call Off China’s Web3 ‘Burning Man,’ Organizers Don’t Back Down

More than 2,000 attendees joined over 100 self-hosted events in the Southwest China city of Dali, even after cops called off the major Web3 event at the very last minute

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Jay Zhuang
2 months ago 5 mins read

For digital nomad MXX, the term Web3 hits too close to home. It reminds her of unpleasant memories of cryptocurrency from 2017.


“I witnessed friends running pump-and-dump schemes selling worthless tokens to retail investors. After hearing many tragic stories, I felt blockchain had only exacerbated people’s appetite for greed,” she says.


Based in the city of Dali in Southwest China’s Yunnan, RADII’s interviewee declines to reveal her real name for privacy purposes.


A nascent concept that empowers internet users and builders to claim ownership of web communities via digital tokens, Web3 has been in a contentious spot in China since the authorities banned crypto trading last year.


But its local community is still growing. MXX became a member herself after a friend invited her to help organize an event titled Summer of Wamo (瓦猫之夏), which was branded as “the first massive Web3 event in China.”


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A promotional poster for the festival. Image via Summer of Wamo


Partly inspired by Nevada’s Burning Man festival, the two-day event was designed for Web3 community members to gather, discuss new technologies, build connections, and speculate on future possibilities.


Known for its natural landscape, diverse culture, and laid-back vibes, Dali is home to scores of youth with progressive and countercultural ideas, making the southwestern city a natural choice of venue.


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Summer of Wamo’s organizers see Dali as the perfect place for advocating Web3


The festival’s organizers even created their mascot Wamo based on a local mythical creature; the tile cat represents the spirit of rationality and optimism. All participants and sponsors even received a Wamo NFT as a welcome gift.


A month’s worth of volunteering at the festival broke down MXX’s negative impressions of Web3. As an environmental activist, she delighted in meeting fellow social and community-building advocates. As time passed, she discovered a deeper link between activism and the spirit of Web3.


“Because of its close tie to cryptocurrencies, Web3 is commonly misunderstood in China as a scheme based on speculative tokens. But it has extended applications, for instance, in transforming the current ownership economy,” she says.


One of the critical applications of the Web3 revolution is the use of tokens. By potentially acting as a store of value, they have the means to help users reclaim ownership of their digital data from tech giants. That being said, China will likely choose an alternative blockchain solution that supports its wild ambition of Web3 without involving cryptocurrencies.


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Summer of Wamo’s early-stage organizers were made up of activists, music curators, scholars, and more


Ms. Tang, acting director of Summer of Wamo, tells RADII that the team has cautiously framed the festival as means to explore digital economies, the metaverse, and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO). The last of these is a form of networking that involves reward distributions based on blockchain technology.


So as not to attract unwanted attention from officials, the team avoided direct engagement with cryptocurrencies.


“We declined applications that promote decentralized finance and other crypto-focused projects,” says Tang. “Since the beginning, we’ve aimed to create a festival distinct from those emphasizing the financial aspect of Web3.”


Even so, the festival was disappointingly canceled at the very last minute.

Toeing the Line

Summer of Wamo had initially been scheduled for August 19 to 20. Three days prior to its launch, however, local authorities called it off, citing Covid-19 restrictions.


“We were all speechless,” recalls Tang, who still remembers feeling her stomach drop upon receiving a call from the police. “In the end, that was the result of a month’s hard work: not a penny as compensation.”


Tang livestreamed the call to her fellow team members. At the time, a total of 1,000 tickets, each costing 499 RMB (about 70 USD), had already been sold. The team decided to provide the buyers with full refunds but also to carry on with the show — in a vastly different manner.


To maneuver past restrictions, they broke down the major event into tens of Web3-themed small gatherings; each was hosted by members of the organizing team as well as passionate participants. These mini meetups spread across the city were held in bars, riverside parks, and even libraries, blurring the lines between hosts, guests, and audience members.


“It’s the centralized institution that pushed us to hold onto the last straw of decentralization,” observes Tang.


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Participants discussing the future of Web3 at a small gathering


The most extreme example of police intervention occurred on August 19, when officials called off a ‘Women in Web3’ meeting halfway through the session. Participants had to leave the open field, but some persistent individuals ran to a nearby bar and texted others to regroup. The unexpected incident fired everyone up and made for even more heated discussions.


“The imposed cancellation forced us to embrace spontaneity,” says MXX. “Whenever people hit a public space, they can quickly organize meetups through group chats across virtual platforms. There were no organizers; everyone could drop by public space and invite others to join them.”


The idea was to empower the participants to thrive in a decentralized ecosystem, explains Ren, one of the festival’s first co-founders: “From the moment we decided to abandon the traditional mode of panel talks, we switched our roles from leaders to facilitators of the event.”


The abrupt change did not stop visitors from all over the country from traveling. That weekend alone, more than 2,000 individuals attended over 100 self-hosted events, confirms Ren, who believes that the event’s new decentralized format primarily drove their success.


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Web3 enthusiasts at the event’s launch party in Dali on August 19


Even so, the smaller events raised the local authorities’ eyebrows and placed the organizers under officials’ radar.


“Whenever we had meetups attracting a slightly larger crowd than usual, the police immediately arrived and dispersed us for Covid-related reasons,” says MXX.


“Being involved in such activities automatically comes with a risk,” says Eggy (alias), a design Ph.D. candidate who also volunteered for the event. “Many of us contributing to this festival have no intention of challenging or uprooting anything. Instead, we simply want to assert our rights within the given boundaries. But things don’t come naturally, we know.”

Decentralization — Myth or Future Truth?

As a visual designer for the festival, Eggy was not heavily involved in its daily operations but had the opportunity to closely observe decentralization’s efficacy.


For example, she realized that some projects are delayed or wholly dropped due to a lack of leadership in flat organizational structures — without authority, no one makes important decisions.


As a side effect, some become ambitious for power, as Eggy points out: “[Many I’ve talked to] keep preaching decentralization, largely because they aren’t at the center. That’s partly why they want to weaponize this concept to maneuver centralized power around themselves.”


Tang also admits that mistakes were made in the electoral process: Many volunteers were recruited for their passion or curiosity instead of their eligibility, creating chaos.


In a common argument against Web3 and cryptocurrencies, critics often highlight the distinct gap between proclaimed ideals (decentralizing wealth concentration) and reality (only a tiny fraction of coin holders own major stakes in predominant cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether).


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Some Web3 community members plan on leaving Dali due to regular scrutiny on cryptocurrency in China


A 2021 study revealed that the top 10% of bitcoin miners with the highest computational power controlled 90% of the supply, and roughly 0.01% of the holders controlled 27% of the currency in circulation.


Aware of the common criticism against Web3, Ren, a former Google software engineer, believes that extensive applications of its underlying technology could spark radical social change.


“Tokenization is about creating borderless consensus via a code-based framework,” explains Ren, “A token is like a symbol, a piece of digital information that could signify various forms of social relationships.”


He sees tokens as a potential embodiment of social identities, meaning that one’s ID card could, in the future, be an NFT recorded on a blockchain.


However, it is exactly this part of Web3 that worries authorities.


According to Thomas Luo, CEO of Chinese tech media outlet PingWest, de-tokenization will more likely be the path for China in terms of Web3 development. He stated that tokenization would fuel capital flight since cryptocurrencies are largely denominated by U.S. dollars. To avoid financial instability, China will not embrace tokenized assets, believes Luo.


Among other things, Ren greatly worries about the lack of regulatory clarity with regard to Web3 activities in China: “You never know when and where you’re touching their nerves. They like to keep you toeing the line, unable to pinpoint exactly where the forbidden zone is.”


Still, Ren believes that Web3 is “the gate to the new world.” He positions Summer of Wamo as a hybrid event that draws inspiration from the 1960s countercultural movement and Silicon Valley’s tech progressivism.


“Dali will continue to attract not only hippies but also tech professionals because it’s the place where you get to taste an alternative lifestyle and imagine a possibility beyond the existing boundary.”


Cover image designed by Beatrice Tamagno; all images courtesy of MXX unless otherwise stated

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