In November, Grace Lv was waiting on the campus playground at her university in Hubei province for her mandatory daily Covid-19 test when a meme popped up on her iPhone through AirDrop. The meme showed a cartoon girl tearing up as she got swabbed, with a caption: “Did you get poked in the throat today?” Lv told Rest of World that receiving entertaining memes like this from nearby strangers has been the lone highlight of standing in queues day after day for mass testing.
“AirDrop is serving as an outlet for our emotions,” she said. “We can’t just go out and have fun under these circumstances, so we can only turn to these little things, trying to forge interactions with each other.”
Whether waiting for a concert to start, riding public transportation or sitting in class, young people around the world have co-opted AirDrop — the iPhone’s file-sharing feature — for their own amusement, spontaneously creating a digital back-and-forth between their devices that dissipates as soon as they walk away. AirDrop allows iPhone users within 30 feet of each other to instantly share files, anonymously if they choose. In China, the feature has become one of the only ways people can share information anonymously in public.
Ahead of the National Party Congress in mid-October, a protester hung banners on a highway overpass in Beijing, calling for President Xi Jinping’s removal from office just as he claimed an unprecedented third term. Images of this rare display of defiance were quickly scrubbed from social media, but China’s censors couldn’t control AirDrop shares. In the weeks that followed, individual reports emerged that people were using AirDrop to spread pictures of the protest, along with other messages protesting against the Chinese Communist Party, in busy public spaces like subway tunnels and Covid-19 testing stations.
After at least ten people died in a November 24 fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region, which had faced some of the country’s toughest Covid restrictions, people in major cities across China took to the streets in unprecedented, widespread protests of the government’s strict coronavirus restrictions. From Beijing to Chengdu, people chanted the slogans that had been hung on the Beijing bridge — evidence that despite censorship, supporters had been able to circulate their message using tools that included AirDrop.
But less than a month after people started using AirDrop to share messages about the bridge protest, Apple made a change to the feature. AirDrop always had a setting that allowed you to switch between only receiving files from people on your contact list or from anyone. A new iOS update changed that; now, users in China have to manually activate the ability to receive files from anyone, and it will only remain active for 10 minutes at a time. This has led some Chinese AirDrop users to speculate that the change was made in order to suppress the spread of uncensored political dissent. Apple has said the update will be rolled out worldwide next year, but did not respond to Rest of World’s request for comment about why the update went live in China before anywhere else. Last year, according to research firm Counterpoint Research, Apple was the third best-selling smartphone brand in China, occupying a 16% market share.
Young people who had used AirDrop to share pictures of the Beijing bridge protest in recent weeks told Rest of World that the limits imposed by Apple will significantly impact their ability to freely share anonymous information. Although Chinese users, like their peers elsewhere, have also exploited the wireless file-sharing feature to harass others with unsolicited flirtations and threats, young AirDrop enthusiasts say the move closes another channel for them to share uncensored jokes, frustrations, and protest messages. AirDrop now defaults to sharing only with known contacts, limiting people’s ability to share information and dissent anonymously.
First introduced as part of iOS 7, AirDrop has been around for nearly 10 years. It has since evolved into a meme-sharing tool for users around the world. From One Direction stans sharing Harry Styles memes at concerts to idle commuters passing the time, total strangers — present in each other’s vicinity for a limited time — bond over dropping files to each other before going their separate ways.
A 20-year-old university student in central China, who requested anonymity for fear of government retaliation, told Rest of World she had AirDropped protest pictures at campus canteens and Covid-19 testing stations in October. As a show of defiance, she named her iPhone “Peng,” the surname of the man believed to be the Beijing bridge protester. “I had no other choice,” she said of her decision to spread the word using AirDrop, adding that speaking up on social media would likely lead to her accounts being shut down. “I called my friends to tell them what happened. But I only had so many friends.”
Rose Luqiu, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies media and social movements in China, told Rest of World that AirDrop had become one of the most efficient tools for people in China to exchange content freely without surveillance in recent years. That’s because China has a large number of iPhone users, and because it didn’t require the use of a virtual private network — or any other workaround — to function. “The new measure from Apple eliminates one valuable channel for people to communicate without government censorship,” Luqiu said.
Another university student in the southern city of Guangzhou, who also declined to be named for fear of government retaliation, told Rest of World he had recently AirDropped strangers a photo of the Beijing bridge protest, a guide to circumventing the Great Firewall, a screenshot of the Wikipedia page about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and a cartoon depicting former leader Hu Jintao’s mysterious exit from the recent party congress. The student said that sometimes, he received responses in the form of iPhone Notes screenshots, calling him a national traitor or telling him to get out of China.
Another woman in her 30s in eastern China, who spoke under the pseudonym Observer to discuss her activism freely, told Rest of World that after images of a woman chained in a shed in rural China sparked outrage earlier this year, she AirDropped pictures about the woman at an office-building canteen and on the subway. After sending out the messages, Observer said, she would leave the subway car immediately to avoid being noticed. In a suppressed political environment, AirDrop has been a tool to reach out to like-minded people. “People would know they were not alone,” she said.
iPhone users in China have also shared all kinds of memes through AirDrop, some more welcome than others. People have received cartoon pictures bearing the text “you didn’t turn off your AirDrop.” At packed restaurants, those waiting for seats have dropped stickers to diners, demanding they “eat faster.” In classrooms, students sneaking looks at their iPhones might get the message “put down your phone! listen attentively!” On Instagram-like Xiaohongshu, one user wrote that when she was in the library in November, she had received an AirDrop message from someone saying they needed sanitary pads. “I have, where are you?” she replied with a Notes screenshot. They happened to be sitting at the same table.
During the 2019 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, people used AirDrop to share protest slogans with each other, and sometimes, with mainland Chinese tourists. They’d write letters in simplified Chinese and disguise their files to look like QR codes from China’s two biggest mobile payment systems, Alipay and WeChat Pay. People who scanned the codes expecting free money instead received information about the protesters’ demands. “For countries that ban protests and are under heavy censorship, technology is always the hope for people to seek and transmit alternative and forbidden information,” said Luqiu. “The government’s actions are always one step behind the activities.”
Apple has a long track record of complying with censorship and security requirements from the Chinese government. It has removed apps used by protesters in Hong Kong from the App Store, scrubbed the Taiwan flag emoji from Chinese keyboards, and conceded to hosting Chinese users’ data on servers inside China, accessible to requests by the Chinese government, in line with the 2017 cybersecurity law. “Those laws were very difficult to comply with,” Doug Guthrie, a professor at Arizona State University’s business school, who has previously worked at Apple in China from 2014 to 2019, told Rest of World. “Companies like Apple had to figure out how to be in lockstep with what the government’s concerns, wants, and desires were.”
Guthrie said Apple’s massive manufacturing supply chain is so entrenched in China and the country’s consumer market is so important to the company’s profits that the company can’t risk being kicked out of the country. “It’s not like Apple can just leave China. So they have to think carefully about how they navigate this system.”
For Apple users in China, it means another channel for censorship-free communication will be closing. “I cannot think of any other ways,” said the student who AirDropped protest pictures on their campus last month. “Maybe [now] we can only do it by word of mouth.”