Netizen Voices: Apple Restricts AirDrop in China After Sitong Bridge Protest

The extraordinary Sitong Bridge protest on October 13 sparked displays of solidarity and protest across China. Some of those moved by the protest have used Apple’s “AirDrop” function to share information about the solitary protestor’s call to action with strangers on the subway in major Chinese cities. “AirDrop” allows users to share files with others nearby through direct WiFi and Bluetooth connections. Crucially, it can be configured to allow anonymous sharing between strangers. In 2019, Hong Kong protestors used it to share information with mainland Chinese visitors to the city. In a new software update for Chinese iOS users, however, Apple has now restricted users’ ability to receive “AirDrops” from strangers to a 10-minute timeframe between manual reactivations. Apple told Bloomberg News that the change is aimed at limiting harassment and will be available globally in the coming year, but did not explain why the feature was first introduced in China. At The New York Times, Li Yuan interviewed a Guangzhou university student who used the AirDrop function to share the Sitong Bridge protestor’s message with strangers on the subway

Encouraged by the Beijing protester’s extremely rare display of courage, young Chinese are using creative ways to spread the banners’ anti-Xi messages. They graffitied the slogans in public toilets in China. They used Apple’s AirDrop feature to send photos of the messages to fellow passengers’ iPhones in subway cars. They posted the slogans on university campuses all over the world. They organized chat groups to bond and shouted “Remove Xi Jinping” in front of Chinese embassies. This all happened while the Communist Party was convening an all-important congress in Beijing and putting forth an image of a country singularly united behind a great leader.

[…] A university student in Guangzhou told me that he was stunned by the courage of the “Bridge Man.” He wants more Chinese to learn about what the man has done. Several times in the past week, he boarded subways and used his iPhone’s AirDrop function to share photos about the protest and instructions on how to download virtual private network software to bypass China’s censorship.

[…] He was scared when he boarded the subway, he said. He wore a mask, as required by the Guangzhou metro’s Covid policies, and found a place where he could use his jacket to keep his phone screen from being seen by surveillance cameras or other passengers. He said more than 20 people had accepted his photos via AirDrop. But he also got an unexpected response from a fellow passenger who sent a photo with the sentence, “China doesn’t need smart cookies.”

“The passenger was mocking me that what I was doing was futile,” he said. [Source]

During the recent 20th Party Congress, Weibo censored search results for “AirDrop,” alongside other words and phrases criticizing Xi or remarking on Hu Jintao’s startling exit from the Congress. Censored terms included “hustled away,” “left the meeting,” “emperor,” “ascend the throne,” “abdicate,” and “we’re screwed.” 

Apple has a history of altering its products for the Chinese market to comply with government censorship requirements, which it defends as equivalent to compliance with laws and regulations elsewhere. The company has also shared Chinese users’ iCloud data with state-owned enterprises. It also blocks Chinese users from accessing hundreds of apps on its App Store, including VPNs and Western news sites such as The New York Times. Apple has also attracted intense scrutiny for its labor-outsourcing practices in China. Earlier this month, hundreds of workers fled on foot from a Foxconn factory that produces most of the world’s iPhones after factory executives allowed a coronavirus outbreak in the plant to mushroom. Apple suppliers have repeatedly been exposed exploiting student laborers

CDT Chinese editors have compiled, from around the web, some reactions to Apple’s move to restrict AirDrop in China. A selection of those comments is translated below

-线描-: I know why this was done. Earlier this month while riding the subway, I was repeatedly AirDropped certain materials. They are afraid of us learning about some things. That’s why they came up with this detestable measure to restrict it.

corwiz:This is due to their fear of us using Apple products to share files directly! No way to surveil it? Enough is enough! This is getting out of hand.

HeptapodCostello:Perhaps most people haven’t realized this yet, but on domestic phones the Taiwanese flag emoji (or the national flag, in some Taiwanese people’s eyes) can’t be displayed.

_库盖:Next they’ll configure it so that only censor-approved content can be AirDropped.

-Kamran:Broke: This will prevent harassment.
    Woke: No sharing negative content about “Daddy.”

卑鄙的士官长:Life always finds a way. There will be more and more content that scares them. Treat it like a joke and it’ll be fine. [Chinese]

The Sitong Bridge protestor’s message has also been shared across China in decidedly low-tech ways. Some supporters of the protestor’s message have graffitied it on the walls of public bathroom stalls. One man who stuck posters on bathroom walls in Guangdong province told The Washington Post: “I believe many people in China feel the same way as I do. Most of the people around me are also disgusted, but they are afraid to act.” Online, some have hailed the bathroom graffiti as a “toilet revolution,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 2015 “toilet revolution” campaign that aimed to improve rural sanitation infrastructure. Others have written poetry inspired by the Sitong Bridge protest and surreptitiously placed it in university libraries. 


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