As protests spread throughout China's Urumqi region against the lockdowns imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Apple customers suddenly find themselves without a key feature used to coordinate demonstrations.
As reported by Quartz, Chinese dissidents have taken to using Apple’s AirDrop feature to safely communicate while evading the CCP’s censorship machine. AirDrop allows users of Apple devices to interface with each other directly when in the same vicinity, bypassing the need for WiFi or 4G cellular data. Chinese citizens have used this feature to share protest information and anti-CCP literature away from the Chinese government’s omnipresent eye.
Until this month, users could set the AirDrop feature to accept files from contacts only or from everyone around them. But on November 9, a new Apple update changed the “Everyone” setting to “Everyone for 10 Minutes,” after which AirDrop automatically shuts off.
Apple rolled out the update only for Chinese phones, just a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s appointment to a third term in office was met with rare displays of protest.
Apple assembles nearly all its products in China and receives approximately $55 billion a year in revenue in China alone. According to the New York Times, the tech giant’s “Chinese supply chain is so large and complex that Apple has concluded it cannot replicate it elsewhere, according to current and former employees.”
The Times also reported last year that at least one facility used by Apple is owned by the state and has both the Apple and Chinese flags flying out front. Inside, Apple “stores the emails, photos, documents and other data of its Chinese customers.”
According to four security experts, Apple’s data security compromises at the behest of the CCP “made it nearly impossible for the company to stop the government from accessing the data.”
Also at the behest of the CCP, Apple automatically removes apps from iPhones which upset the Chinese government and censors certain “banned topics,” such as Tibetan and Taiwanese independence and the Dalai Lama.
The current wave of Chinese protests comes as the Xinjing Province, including Urumqi’s four million residents, has been under lockdown for over 100 days due to China’s COVID-Zero policy. The policy was first implemented in late 2019 when the first COVID cases were discovered and for three years has failed to eradicate COVID.
On November 23 a fire broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi's Jixiang Yuan district, but residents were unable to escape after lockdown authorities had locked their doors from the outside. Fire trucks were similarly prevented from getting close enough to douse the fire. Ten people were reportedly burned alive, including a three-year-old child.