Argument

China Ends the Clubhouse Spring

Beijing has blocked the social app after a brief flowering of open discussion.

An illustration photo taken on Jan. 25 shows the Clubhouse app on a smartphone.
An illustration photo taken on Jan. 25 shows the Clubhouse app on a smartphone. Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

A Chinese citizen admitted that his prejudices about Hong Kong changed when he moved there for work and that he now admired the city’s commitment to the now waning rule of law. An overseas member of the most persecuted ethnic minority in China, the Uighurs, recounted the horror of his relatives’ disappearances and detentions as a roomful of Han, the majority population in China, listened, some of whom knew little about what many in the international community now consider a genocide. And most stunningly and riskily, a Uighur currently in China spoke candidly of friends who endured what the Chinese government calls “reeducation.”

The past two weeks have seen a boom in intense, hourslong, and uncensored group conversations with Chinese, Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese on the U.S. social audio app Clubhouse. Launched last spring, the start-up recently expanded to more users, with 2 million active accounts and growing. Audio conversations take place in real time, and the contents do not stay up on the platform. It remains invite-only, but Chinese speakers have flocked to the app, with many opting out of the tech and business chatter that has dominated American usage for the rooms discussing democracy and human rights.

While these elite users with access to an exclusive app do not reflect a cross-section of Chinese opinions, the result has been dizzying: At times, participants have acted like exhilarated West and East Berliners converging along the breached wall of the divided city in 1989, the unfettered opinions of Chinese citizens reaching out past their own Iron Curtain, China’s Great Firewall. However, Clubhouse users understood that, unlike the events of Berlin, this halcyon moment would end whenever the Chinese Communist Party reacted. That happened Monday, when the app was blocked; what may follow are targeted persecutions of those who spoke too freely.

In this brief period, though, the conversations felt like confessionals or group therapy, users tuning in and tearing up. One Han woman apologized to Uighurs, sobbing that she feared “Chinese are standing on the wrong side of history.” Others entering the online rooms, however, also expressed ambivalence about democracy, particularly after seeing Donald Trump’s presidency culminate in the U.S. Capitol unrest in January. In these moments, people from Taiwan volunteered to share their experiences of what freedom means to them.

The rush to speak is a reminder, too, of how much open discussion Chinese have lost even in the last decade. Before Xi Jinping, open, anonymous—if often eventually censored—debate was common on the Chinese internet itself. But a massive rise in online persecution put a stop to that after 2012, including the targeting of prominent bloggers, numerous arrests for comments online, and a sweeping crackdown on chat groups on popular apps like WeChat. Clubhouse provided a temporary return to those days.

On Clubhouse, Taiwanese have played an interesting role in jump-starting many of these conversations, with podcasters, bloggers, and influencers there launching and moderating some of the earliest rooms. Beijing, ever paranoid about ideological intrusion, is likely to read these good-natured attempts at engaging, typical in any open society, as a pernicious plot. Taiwanese have quickly been joined by moderators from different backgrounds, however, from mainland Han Chinese to overseas Uighur activists.

Not all conversations have fostered greater understanding. Clubhouse co-founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth have said they hope their product will spark empathy and become a place “where people with different perspectives, backgrounds and lived experiences broaden their understanding and evolve their worldviews.” Did they anticipate the shattering conversation of genocide denial?

Goodwill has sometimes given way to inquisitory moments, as skeptical Chinese deny the existence of detention camps long confirmed by satellite and document leaks, along with thousands of accounts from relatives and survivors. Uighurs have found themselves reliving their traumas in order to convince those who’ve bought in to Beijing’s propaganda. While most Chinese on the app have not outright denied the camps, many suggested international reporting has been hyperbolic. One Uighur moderator facing a doubter broke down mid-speech, putting himself on mute to hide his sobs. The room he was in, “Are there concentration camps in Xinjiang?”—titled in the form of a question rather than a statement—already put Uighurs on the defensive. It underscores how even in engagement, the conversations often accommodate the narrative of China’s propaganda. In rooms about Taiwan-China relations, a similar atmosphere pervaded, with Taiwanese patiently explaining their views to Chinese like hostages to their kidnappers—the subtext being: “Please don’t invade us.”

The app is only available for iPhone users. It has never been available on China’s Apple App Store, but until Monday, those living there had been able to change their location to download it. Uncertain when the Chinese state would shut down access to Clubhouse for good, participants have binged on free expression. One room lasted 100 hours, with moderators passing their responsibilities around so each could nap. It’s still possible to use a virtual private network (VPN) to access the app from China—but obtaining and maintaining a VPN has also become far harder.

There are worse worries than blocking, however. Users representing the interests of the Chinese state have lurked in these open forums already, taking notes on the thoughtcrimes of fellow citizens. Once authorities have identified them, what might happen to these users, and how much responsibility does Clubhouse have if conversations on the platform lead to arrests? That could mean problems not just for users in China itself but for Chinese living abroad when they return home—or their families.

Users representing the interests of the Chinese state have lurked in these open forums already, taking notes on the thoughtcrimes of fellow citizens.

Clubhouse has not adequately addressed these concerns. Digital rights activists have also observed that a Chinese technology company, Agora, is helping to power Clubhouse’s real-time audio format. In its F-1 filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Agora acknowledged that it may need to comply with Chinese laws, including any requests from the government to hand over data. This would also include any Clubhouse data it manages.

In conversation on his own platform this past weekend to welcome Chinese-speaking users, Davison made no mention of the free expression explosion taking place. More troublingly, he assured users that Clubhouse does not record conversations but went on to explain that the app has a temporary audio buffer—in other words, a recording—that could be reviewed if users complain about the proceedings in any room.

Like many companies preceding it, Clubhouse appears to be sleepwalking into a potential China-related disaster, much as Zoom did last year when an employee in its China offices targeted events and accounts of dissidents, including those living outside China. American executives have repeatedly shown a blind spot when it comes to anticipating such tangles. In Clubhouse’s case, its management team likely doesn’t consider the China market core to its expansion strategy—but it could still get caught in the crosshairs.

For now, the magical moment has passed. As the Hong Kong activist Patrick Poon tweeted, “I wish I could have [a] thousand ears and phones” to consume the geyser of chatter, with those inside and outside China asking each other questions and frequently sharing deeply personal stories as part of their responses. Despite Beijing’s frequent claim that the world ignores the opinions of Chinese people, the eagerness with which others rushed to listen shows how much people want to hear their unfiltered speech. The participants have had diverse views, but one thing holds true, even for those who spoke up in support of Beijing: This brief opportunity to exchange their genuine feelings, and their inability to do so ordinarily, unites them as victims of the Chinese Communist Party’s tyranny and long reach—even for those who live beyond its shores.

Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter who previously worked as a broadcast correspondent for Al Jazeera. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.