What Are You Allowed to Say on China's Social Networks? (IEEE Spectrum)
In Baring Facts of Train Crash, Blogs Erode China Censorship (The New York Times)
Photo courtesy Sarah Macmillan
The Quiet Revolution
The last known words from Xu Yao at USTC in Hefei were, “something sounds loud going outside to check it out”. His neighbour, Jennifer Liu, was finishing up an AI assignment, while across the hall Tiffany Chen was cooking some noodles before a dance class. A few seconds later, at 6:37pm on Friday 1st April 2033, a helicopter taking off from a nearby car park caught a set of electricity pylons outside their dormitory.
The helicopter tipped over and smashing it through the building’s curtain wall. Multiple gas lines were ruptured and immediately ignited, causing an explosion that incinerated the entire western wing, instantly killing 19 students and staff, and critically injuring 48 others. It wasn’t until the next day that emergency workers and drones were able to clear the rubble and carry the last few survivors to hospital.
The explosion was covered in real time by over a thousand separate cameras and audio sensors. While only 133 were publicly accessible – mostly students’ personal cameras and glasses, along with some unauthorised media drones that happened to be nearby – there was enough to identify the helicopter and all of the people involved in the accident. In the space of five minutes, 78,000 messages about the crash were circulated across the internet, and after an hour had passed, that number had risen into the tens of millions.
A cursory examination of the footage revealed that the helicopter was registered to Wuhan International, a shell company. Collective searches traced the ownership back to Dr. Alexander Yang, a billionaire investment manager from Shanghai. It emerged that his son, Herbert Yang, was studying at USTC and – just as he had done for the previous few months – intended to skip the traffic jams by flying directly to his home outside Hefei.
Officially, civilian helicopter flights were strictly regulated within Anhui and indeed all of China, and it was certainly illegal, not to mention clearly unsafe, for Herbert Yang to be taking off from a car park so close to a residential building. However, corruption was common and bribery ensured that few questions were asked – until the crash.
Calls for Dr. Yang to be arrested for manslaughter gained traction with over seventeen million people agreeing within two hours, and other government officials who were thought to be complicit in the crash, such as the civil aviation officials for Anhui, were also identified.
China’s internet monitors had been tracking sentiment surrounding the ‘USTC crash’ right from the start, and the order was given to Weibo and other social networking platforms to slow or shut down the transmission of keywords associated with the crash. In the past, this had worked reasonably well at blunting anger, especially with the ‘Harmonious Choir’ counter-protest system that helped human operators spread messages meant to blunt or disperse online anger via a panoply of supposedly realistic artificial personalities.
However, the millions of furious messages were hard to shut down, with keywords and images and videos changing minute to minute as groups evaded the online censors; it didn’t help that a widespread mass transit systems failure across Guangdong had only been resolved two days ago. As it happened, the censors weren’t entirely immune to the messages either, as Carol Xu, a censorship community manager, told me:
“You have to understand that the crash was deeply personal for many of the online censors. The people who were killed were engineering and computer science students; we thought they were the victims of a cruel and corrupt society. OK, not all of the censors felt the same way, but enough did, and… well… we went a bit slow. Maybe we didn’t look as thoroughly for all the keywords and clusters we should have. I don’t know whether it made a difference. I hope it did.”
Retrospective analysis suggests that Xu’s efforts – or lack of them – did in fact help buy the protesters crucial time to stoke up outrage to a point were citizens were prepared to take further steps. Not physical ones – people were still afraid to go outside with emergency surveillance drones floating over every city and town – but online civil disobedience was a different matter.
The government simply wasn’t able to move fast enough – by the time a proper statement that it would mount a ‘serious investigation’ of the crash emerged a two days afterwards, people had already begun sending messages and files to government officials in their hundreds of millions, crashing mailboxes and networks throughout the country with pent-up grievances. Scripts were circulated that would hammer ‘corrupt’ businesses with credit card transactions and then revoke them, playing havoc with banks’ financial systems. Look on any street and you wouldn’t see much out of the ordinary – but look online, where people lived and worked and played, and it was a seething revolt.
Most shockingly, hackers managed to leak high level government deliberations on the crash. The videos and audio transcript showed a party that was disunited and afraid; the one thing they could have done – arrest Dr. Yang – was subject to furious debate as many in the party worried about a mass exodus of businessmen and capital from the country if a precedent of real corruption arrests were made. It plunged China into the Quiet Revolution, one characterised by the battles online, not in the real world.
There had been unrest in China before, and about apparently far more serious matters such as environmental damage and civil rights. But the sheer normality of the USTC crash – an entirely preventable accident that pitted the masses against the corrupt and the rich – struck a new chord, and the crash became linked to wider dissatisfaction about growing social security and employment problems across the country.
China’s one child policy had resulted in a decidedly lopsided population pyramid in which a comparatively small number of adults were supporting a large number of the elderly; compounded by low government pensions and only basic free healthcare, not to mention emerging competition from both the low end – in Africa and India – and the high end – via local manufacturing and 3D printing, strains in the social compact were becoming too much to bear. China’s leaders authority relied on whether they could prove themselves worthy to rule. A decade of crawling economic growth was the the fuel. The USTC crash was the spark. And the effects would be felt across the world.