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THE PARTY IS OVER

Clubhouse’s moment of free speech in China is over

Clubhouse
Joining the club.
  • Jane Li
By Jane Li

China tech reporter

The audio-based social network Clubhouse offered Chinese users a rare chance to have uncensored, free discussions on topics ranging from Xinjiang to Hong Kong protests in the past few days—something that would otherwise be unimaginable on the heavily monitored Chinese internet. Now, the brief moment of free speech is over.

Beijing blocked the invitation-only app on Monday (Feb. 8), according to Clubhouse users in mainland China. On WeChat, many shared their regret at seeing the app finally barred, and said they now need to use virtual private networks—tools for circumventing China’s great firewall—to access Clubhouse, according to posts seen by Quartz. Michael Anti, an editor at China’s renowned financial publication Caixin, also tweeted that the app is blocked in most cities in China.

Mainly thanks to Elon Musk’s debut on the app to quiz Robinhood founder Vladimir Tenev last week, Clubhouse became one of the hottest topics on the Chinese internet. Launched last April by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Davison and ex-Googler Rohan Seth, it allows users to join random chat rooms where they can discuss or listen in on a range of topics.

Merchants on a slew of Chinese e-commerce sites were selling the app’s invite codes, some of which could be as expensive as 400 yuan ($62). Users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo shared their experience of using the app, with a tag related to Clubhouse viewed more than 50 million times.

Tech bloggers also flocked to write about Clubhouse, which was especially popular among investors and entrepreneurs, who treated obtaining the invite code as a way of showcasing their wide connections in that circle. Although it is now blocked, Quartz still found people selling the app’s invite codes on Monday, on e-commerce site Xianyu.

“There has been a lot of exuberance among Chinese users on the app who have unexpectedly been given a space where they are exposed to political topics that are too sensitive to be discussed in China,” said Fergus Ryan, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre. “That has resulted in a lot of amazing discussions about issues like the treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, cross-strait relations, and the Hong Kong protest movement.”

A free speech heaven

Although users in China need to use a non-mainland Chinese Apple account to download Clubhouse, many still managed to get on the app. On Monday, Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong and the Chinese city of Guangzhou discussed things including Cantonese language preservation and the pro-democracy Hong Kong protests, which are labeled as a separatist movement by Beijing. Topics like feminism, the experience of being interrogated by Chinese security officers, and Chinese journalists’ experience working for foreign media outlets were also popular.

Probably most surprisingly, chat rooms about Xinjiang also emerged and attracted large crowds of Chinese listeners over the past weekend. An estimated 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities have been held in China’s so-called re-education camps. But first-person accounts from previous detainees and reports from human rights groups have suggested that large-scale rape and torture are prevalent. Any discussion on Xinjiang is highly monitored in China, and it is impossible to openly talk about the topic on the Chinese internet due to the country’s blanket censorship.

On Friday (Feb. 5), nearly 4,800 people participated in a chat room on Clubhouse where Uyghurs shared their experience of living in China, including the heavy surveillance they have encountered, as well as their worries for families and friends who still live in Xinjiang. In one account, a Uyghur person described the difficulties of finding a job in big Chinese cities because of Beijing’s discriminatory policies against the group, while some overseas Uyghurs explained their unique way of staying in touch with their family: by sending heart emojis to them on chat apps. Any further conversation could cause their family trouble.

“We originally planned to host the room for only one hour, but in the end it lasted almost three hours,” said Ken Young, one of the creators of the chat room. Young is a co-host of Bailingguo News, a popular podcast on international news in Taiwan. Young and another host of Bailingguo, Kylie Wang, moderated the conversations in the room, which was one of the first within Clubhouse to focus on Xinjiang.

In addition to the accounts from Uyghurs, some Han Chinese—the dominant ethnic group in China—expressed their surprise upon hearing the stories. “Many Han people said they didn’t know the situation in Xinjiang was that bad until they heard from the Uyghurs, and said they felt sad,” Wang told Quartz. “Overall, I think the conversations helped boost the understanding between Han, Uyghur, and Taiwanese people.”

She recalled one Han person, who initially expressed doubts about the authenticity of the accounts from Uyghur speakers, later reminding moderators to disguise the voices of the Uyghurs to protect them in case the conversation were published. Another Han person apologized to Uyghurs, saying they couldn’t do much for them,  Young said in a video summary of the conversation.

Those lively discussions could now be beyond reach for many in China thanks to the blocking of the app. Although many will be savvy enough to use tools like VPNs to access it, Beijing’s clear disapproval of Clubhouse could put them off.

“It is likely that government censors will be looking to avail themselves of technology like Voiceprint technology, auto-transcribing of conversations that are then scanned for keywords like ‘Boycotting the Olympics,’ ‘Tibet’ or ‘Xinjiang,’ for example,” said Ryan. “It is also trivially easy for anyone’s personal contact network to be mapped simply by looking at who has invited who to the app, and who is in the user’s following and followed lists.”

In an article published just before Clubhouse was blocked, China’s state-owned tabloid Global Times disagreed that the app was a free-speech haven, citing Chinese users who said the political discussions on the platform were often “one-sided,” and that pro-China voices were “suppressed.”

Mary Hui contributed additional reporting.

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