A Shanghai resident was riding the metro on Tuesday when an AirDrop notification popped up on his iPhone: “‘Xi Jinping’s iPhone’ would like to share a photo.”
Curious, the man accepted the request and received an image denouncing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule. “Oppose dictatorship, oppose totalitarianism, oppose autocracy,” some of the characters on the poster read.
The slogans echoed what a man had written on two banners and hung on a highway overpass in Beijing last week in a daring act of defiance of Xi’s tight grip on the country. The unusual display of dissent came at a sensitive time, as the Chinese president is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as the chief of the ruling Chinese Communist Party at a key political meeting held in the Chinese capital this week.
“This is the first time I saw or received a medium of any kind that is critical of the current regime,” he told VICE World News, speaking anonymously to avoid retaliation from Chinese authorities. “Word of mouth, even from the locals, is common, but never something of this nature.”
Demonstrations against the government are prohibited in China, and those against Xi are particularly sensitive as the leader has built a cult of personality around himself, and authorities have punished those who criticized him. Social media companies closely monitor and censor even private messages of dissent against the party and Xi.
Usable only in close range and only among Apple devices, AirDrop is one of few relatively untraceable methods for sharing files in China. And some Chinese residents are using the feature to secretly spread protest messages based on the banners of the Beijing demonstrator, whom some refer to as the “bridge man.”
Chinese authorities have gone to extreme lengths to suppress discussion of the lone protest, including censoring terms such as broad as “bridge” and “courage,” and shutting down social media accounts that shared information about the incident, even in private. But the man, identified online as a 48-year-old named Peng Lifa, has been hailed by Chinese dissidents abroad as a hero, while his actions inspired a covert wave of protest.
Besides spreading messages in public using AirDrop, some residents have scribbled slogans calling for an end to Xi’s rule on bathroom walls and notice boards on Chinese campuses, and shared tips on how to bypass censorship through WeTransfer. These scattered pockets of resistance may not be large in scale, but are significant given the Chinese government’s efforts to silence all expressions of dissent and the risks people take to make their opinions heard.
Equally notable is the fact that these acts of defiance are not just contained in China. CitizensdailyCN, an instagram account run by a group of anonymous Chinese nationals, have been keeping tabs on sightings of anti-Xi posters. According to the group, they have cropped up in around 250 universities around the world, including in Australia, Japan, Canada, UK, and the U.S.
“You’re at your stop, time to get off,” read one poster featuring an image of Xi that has been spotted at Harvard University as well as Arizona State University.
Bin Xu, an associate professor of sociology at the Emory University in Atlanta, took note of the trend and spotted some placards on his campus as well. “This is a positive indication that this group of young Chinese, who come from relatively wealthier families in China and are often believed to be either politically apathetic or nationalistic, are concerned about their home country's future and want to be part of the force of change,” he told VICE World News.
“The fear is real, even for people who are living overseas,” an administrator of CitizensdailyCN told VICE World News, speaking anonymously to protect their identity.
“The risk for a Chinese to voice out is jail time or not being able to see their parents for the rest of their life. All of these make it extraordinarily crucial for us to figure out ways to get connected,” they said, noting that for many Chinese students who participated, it is the first time they are taking political action in the public sphere.
“Even when studying abroad, most Chinese students are subjected to surveillance imposed by both China’s censorship machine and supporters of the Chinese Communist Party everywhere. Putting up banners makes this group of pro-democracy students visible not only to the public, but also to each other. It gives them the courage to be seen, which in my opinion is the first step towards building a community,” they added.