Clubhouse tempts censorship in China as users flock to social network’s audio chat rooms to debate Hong Kong, Xinjiang

Che Pan
·5-min read

Clubhouse, the popular audio-chat social networking app, has been quickly gaining in popularity among mainland Chinese users as it gives them a rare space to freely discuss such sensitive topics as Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Clubhouse, which received a boost from Elon Musk this month, is not available in China’s Apple Store and is an invite-only app on iOS devices at the moment. That has not stopped mainland Chinese users from scrambling to download it by using overseas Apple IDs and buying invitation codes where necessary.

On China’s largest e-commerce platform, Taobao, a search using the keywords “clubhouse invitation” in Chinese generated more than two dozen results. An online shop in Shanghai, boldly calling itself “clubhouse invitation code”, has sold more than 200 invitations in the last month, with codes priced up to 329 yuan (US$50).

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For users in mainland China, the app, which doesn’t support text or video, has offered a fresh platform for social debate.

“I’ve been on Clubhouse for about two weeks. So far, the biggest topics are in tech, start-up, investment and [venture capital] spaces,” said Arnold Ma, founder and an executive of China-focused digital agency Qumin.

Ma said he has seen an influx of users from Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and China.

Some topics that are off limits for free discussion in mainland China are fair game on Clubhouse, where people from different regions with opposing political views can hear each other out and discuss freely.

Agora, the tech provider behind Clubhouse, says it does not store user data

A netizen with the screen name OrwellianNonsense shared her experience about Clubhouse on China’s Twitter-like Weibo site. In her post, she said she had found a room where people from both mainland China and Taiwan engaged in an open and peaceful discussion about relations between the two sides of Taiwan Strait.

“On major social media platforms, I’ve seen too many times that young people on both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait simply ignore each other’s views, staying in their own information cocoons, criticising the others’ opinions and even insulting them,” she wrote on Weibo on Saturday.

“I stayed in this room for two hours today, and noticed that most of the people participating in the discussion were very rational and tolerant when discussing with others.”

What she saw there reinforced her belief that “differences in political positions should never override the relationship between peoples.”

In one open room with hundreds of listeners, people from different backgrounds discussed Chinese policies in Xinjiang – a taboo issue in China – where the Trump administration accused China of committing “genocide”. Beijing strongly denies the allegation.

Audio social apps boom in China on the back of Clubhouse’s rising profile

In other rooms, discussions conducted in Mandarin Chinese about topics such as Hong Kong identity, democracy and human rights often sparked a heated exchange of views.

Ironically, Clubhouse’s rising popularity may bode ill for its prospects as Beijing is prone to intolerance of open discussion of issues that it deems sensitive. It has also fuelled speculation about how long China’s censors will tolerate the freewheeling audio-chat app in the country’s cyberspace, where Facebook, Twitter and Google have been banned.

“I think the most likely outcome is that Clubhouse will eventually be banned in China,” said Ma. “I can’t see them tweaking the app to adhere to Chinese laws or regulations any time soon.”

He predicted Clubhouse would be blocked soon and replaced by a Chinese copycat. “There will be an influx of Chinese apps that have similar functions that will gain traction in China,” Ma said.

Many have expressed similar sentiments on Weibo. “I’ve finally tried Clubhouse … and my biggest impression: it’s such a miracle that it’s still accessible in mainland China,” wrote Zhang Taisu, a professor at Yale Law School in a Weibo post on Sunday.

One Weibo user said it is “only a matter of time” before Clubhouse is totally banned in China. “Those in the mainland who don’t yet have an invitation code don’t have to be worried, because sooner or later you won’t be able to use it,” the comment read.

In fact, the sense of borrowed time for censor-free discussion is felt in Clubhouse as well. One Chinese language Clubhouse room on Sunday afternoon was dedicated to the question of “when Clubhouse will be walled” – a phrase meaning completely banned.

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Ren Yi, an online opinion leader known as Rabbit Chairman, wrote on his Chinese Weibo account on Saturday that Clubhouse could become a place for one-sided views of “anti-communism, anti-establishment [in China], and anti-China” because the high barriers have kept the Chinese general public out of the discussions.

For now, once a Chinese user has downloaded it using an overseas Apple ID, the app can be accessed without a VPN, a software tool used by many to bypass the Great Firewall of China.

Clubhouse was brought into existence in March 2020 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, an ex-Google employee. The voice chat application, offering a space for casual and drop-in audio conversations, has been very popular among tech venture capitalists, serving a 1,500-member community as of May 2020.

Its popularity around the globe shot up rapidly after Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk showed up on the app last Monday. Musk’s talk with Robinhood chief executive Vlad Tenev over the recent saga around GameStop broke the app’s limit of 5,000 people in a single room for the first time, according to TechCrunch.

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