Object 42

The USTC Crash

2033, Hefei, China

The last known words from Xu Yao at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei were, "stupid copter taking off outside going to check it out", sent via SMS to his sister. His neighbour, Jennifer Liu, was finishing up a homework assignment, while across the hall Tiffany Chen was cooking noodles before a dance class.

A few seconds later, at 6:37pm on Friday April 1st, 2033, a helicopter taking off from a nearby car park clipped an electricity pylon running beside their four-storey dormitory. It tipped over and smashed directly into the building. Multiple gas lines immediately ignited, causing an explosion that incinerated the entire western wing and instantly killed 19 students and staff. 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. In total, 148 people died and 201 were critically injured. This blackened rotor is all that remains of the helicopter today.

The explosion was covered in real time by more than a thousand separate cameras and audio sensors. While only 200 had public feeds — mostly students' glasses plus some unauthorised drones nearby — there was enough data available to identify the helicopter and all of the people involved in the accident.

A cursory examination of the footage revealed that the helicopter was registered to Wuhan 57958 International, a shell company. Tracing the ownership trail back revealed that it was actually used by Dr. Alexander Yang, a billionaire investment manager from Shanghai. His son, Herbert Yang, studied at USTC. It emerged that Herbert Yang had been in the helicopter when it crashed; he had been intending to skip the traffic jams on the way to his home outside Hefei.

Civilian helicopter flights were strictly regulated within Anhui, and indeed, all of China. It was certainly illegal, not to mention extremely unsafe, for Herbert Yang to be taking off from a car park so close to a residential building. But corruption was common and few questions were asked of such people — especially of the son of a billionaire who counted several third and fourth generation 'Immortals' among his close friends.

In the hours following the crash, more than 17 million people signed an online petition for Dr. Yang to be prosecuted for manslaughter, along with civil aviation officials in Anhui. China's internet monitors had been tracking sentiment regarding the USTC crash almost immediately, and with the petition gaining traction, they ordered Weibo and other social networking casters to block the transmission of all messages related to the topic.

Historically, this tactic had worked reasonably well due to the 'Harmonious Choir' counter-protest system. The ‘Choir’ was a panoply of constructed artificial personalities that censors could use to spread online messages for the purpose of manipulating public sentiment; in this case, to blunt and disperse online anger. However, the millions of furious messages about the crash were harder to hide than usual, with keywords and images and videos changing from minute to minute as groups tried to evade the online censors. As it happened, the censors weren't entirely immune to the messages either, as Carol Xu, an internet monitor team leader tells me:

"You have to understand that the crash was deeply personal for many of the online censors. The people who were killed were just young kids. They hadn't done anything wrong except live near that stupid helicopter. OK, not all of the censors felt the same way, but enough did, and... well... maybe we worked a bit slow. Maybe we didn't look as thoroughly for all the keywords and clusters we could have. I don't know whether it made a difference. I hope it did."

Deep mining suggests that Xu's efforts, or lack of them, really did buy online protesters crucial time to organise mass civil disobedience. Not in the real world — people were afraid to gather in large groups when emergency surveillance drones lurked over every city and town — but online civil disobedience was a different matter entirely.

The protesters began sending billions of angry messages to government officials, crashing mailboxes and networks across 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. Walk along any street and you wouldn't have seen anything out of the ordinary, but look online, where people lived and worked and played, and it was a seething revolt. China's cautious leaders took an entire day to issue a statement vaguely promising a “serious investigation”. It was far too little, and far too late.

Most shockingly, hackers managed to access and leak a transcript of the State Council's emergency online deliberations about the crash. It showed a government that was disunited and afraid. The one action that might have made a difference — immediately arresting Dr. Yang and other complicit officials in Anhui on grounds of corruption — was dismissed out of hand. Many in the Council worried that if they bowed to public pressure so quickly, it might set off a mass exodus of businesspeople and capital from the country. In the end, they did nothing, and China was plunged into the Quiet Revolution — a revolution characterised by battles online, not in the real world.

There had been unrest in China before, 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. The crash became a powerful rallying point against the unaccountability and criminal ineffectiveness of the government.

Just as importantly, it brought to the surface long-held concerns about people's physical and financial security. China's one-child policy had resulted in a decidedly lopsided population pyramid. Too few adults were supporting too many elderly, and spartan government pensions and healthcare services couldn't fill the gap. Economic growth was sputtering out under pressure from low-end manufacturers in Africa and India, and from high-end automation and amplified teams. Devastating man-made environmental disasters ladled on the misery.

China's citizens had much to be thankful for — since the 20th century, the country had rocketed out of poverty and into the ranks of the richest nations in the world. But those riches were not being fairly distributed, and the resulting strains on the social compact were becoming too much to bear. The legitimacy of China's leaders ultimately rested on their ability to govern with justice and honour. That legitimacy vanished in a bonfire.

A decade of crawling economic growth was the fuel. The USTC crash was the spark. And the flames would be felt across the world.