Beijing blocks Clubhouse in China after thousands of Chinese users flocked to the app

After thousands of Mandarin users emerged in Clubhouse over the last few days, many of them from China began to interact with other users from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other places. According to researchers, some Chinese people who pay attention to sensitive issues have surfaced through the Clubhouse.

Over the last week, Clubhouse, the invitation-only audio social media platform, has witnessed the emergence of a large number of users from China, and they have begun to talk about sensitive topics with users from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Uyghur users living in different parts of the world.

Badiucao, the Australian Chinese artist who held several discussions with users in the Chinese-speaking community, said since Clubhouse is an audio-based social media platform, it went beyond the barrier between simplified and traditional characters, allowing users in the Chinese-speaking and Cantonese-speaking community to interact more directly.

“Users often can’t identify whether the account they are interacting with is controlled by a real person or not when they are using text-based social media platforms,” he said. “On Twitter, we often see Hong Kong protesters engage in arguments with Chinese nationalist users, and they often can’t determine whether the people behind the Chinese nationalist accounts are bots or real people. However, since users can only use voice to interact with each other, it could be hard for bots to duplicate multiple accounts, so when users from China are interacting with users from other places on Clubhouse, they can easily determine that the accounts are controlled by real people.”

Badiucao thinks that when users from China are interacting with users from other Chinese-speaking places, they can achieve some kind of reconciliation during the process. “Most users in the Chinese-speaking Clubhouse sector can have the chance to express their opinions, which makes users more willing to engage with each other,” he said. “Many users on Clubhouse are people that I normally can’t engage with on other social media platforms and seeing so many people from China willing to express their opinions is very encouraging.”

However, Wang Yaqiu from Human Rights Watch points out that since Clubhouse is limited to iPhone users now, the criteria will filter out users with higher socioeconomic status. “In groups talking about topics related to Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, many of the users from China choose to join these groups voluntarily,” she said. “I think Clubhouse shows that there is a group of more liberal people in China because many nationalistic Chinese people won’t appear on Clubhouse and they won’t join discussions on sensitive topics.”

At around 6:30 p.m. local time in China, users began to report that they were no longer able to access in China without connecting to the VPN, and even those who tried to access the app via VPN encountered difficulties too. Users began to lament the short-lived opportunity for people in China to engage in conversations related to a wide range of topics with people outside of China.

Chinese users speaking up for Uyghurs

Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur lawyer who began to advocate for her brother after he was sentenced to 15 years in jail, joined a room talking about China’s persecution of the Uyghurs in Mandarin on Sunday. She said there were some Han Chinese users who explained why they could understand what the Uyghurs were going through over the last few years, which made her feel touched.

“When some users asked inappropriate questions in the room, some Han Chinese users will come out to defend the Uyghurs, which was quite touching,” Asat said. “Over the last two days, I realized that since Han Chinese people and Uyghurs live within the same system in China, the exchanges that we have on Clubhouse made me feel like we have a coalition. Those Han Chinese users wanted to speak up for the Uyghurs, but they are also afraid of being persecuted by the Chinese government.”

Asat also points out that the Han Chinese users’ willingness to help the Uyghurs also made her understand why the Chinese government has tried to suppress all kinds of discussions related to the re-education camps in Xinjiang over the last few years.

“Some Han Chinese users kept asking us how they could help us, but at the same time, they were worried that they might fall into danger,” she said. “These Han Chinese users need to first think about their personal safety so they can’t really publicly speak up for the Uyghurs.”

Security concerns on Clubhouse

While the interaction between users from China and users from other regions seem encouraging, there are still some security concerns regarding the technologies used by the app. Australian artist Badiucao said since Clubhouse asks users to register with a phone number and it asks users to share their list of contacts, these steps could create serious security concerns.

“So far, users can only join Clubhouse through invitation, so every user’s contact network can easily be breached by the Chinese government,” Badiucao said. “Additionally, since Clubhouse uses the audio technology from the Chinese company Agora, it is worth keeping an eye on whether the company will comply with the Chinese government’s requests for cooperation or not. If Agora can’t refuse to comply with the Chinese government, it could also potentially create serious security concerns.”

Wang Yaqiu from Human Rights Watch used the incident of Zoom blocking users in the U.S. from organizing an event commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre last year as an example and said since Clubhouse is an American software, if its operation in China triggered some controversy, Clubhouse might face investigation in the U.S. “If Clubhouse cooperates with the Chinese government, it will damage their reputation,” she said.

Clubhouse allowed users in China to “surface”

However, Wang and Badiucao both think that the outside world should view the emergence of users from China in Clubhouse positively because it proves that China is not as impenetrable as the world thinks it is. Badiucao thinks that users from China prove that there are many Chinese people who have a clear understanding of their own country and they are also very aware of the dilemmas they are facing.

“If China were a pressure cooker when Clubhouse shows up, it was like someone has lifted the air valve on the pressure cooker, allowing a high-pitched noise to travel across the world,” Badiucao explained. “We don’t know when the government’s hand is going to close off the air valve, but Clubhouse proved that it is not as smooth-sailing as Beijing normally describes inside the country. Rather, there are a lot of resentments and contradictions in the Chinese society.”

Wang Yaqiu points out that while the outside world might think it is surprising to see so many liberal Chinese users on Clubhouse, she thinks these users have always existed in China. They were unable to publicly talk about sensitive topics like Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the re-education camps in Xinjiang because they are concerned about being persecuted by the Chinese government.

“Clubhouse allows these Chinese users to surface, and I hope people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the whole world can understand that these people have always been there, and they were unable to publicly comment on sensitive topics due to concerns about the underlying risks,” she said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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