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clubhouse, china, social media, censorship, hong kong, xinjiang

A Hole in the Great Firewall

What the rise and fall of a new app tells us about China’s appetite for an unfiltered internet.

Words: Zoe Jordan and Vivek Pisharody
Pictures: Min G

For a brief few days, a new social media application created a rare gap in China’s Great Firewall. Clubhouse, an invite-only audio-based social media platform perhaps best described as a podcast-Twitter hybrid, allows participants to join “rooms” with up to 5,000 listeners. The app surged in popularity in China in early February, with thousands of Chinese citizens connecting with Mandarin speakers across the globe to discuss any topic – including taboo ones like the Hong Kong protests and the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Formally blocked by the Chinese government on Feb. 8, Clubhouse now faces both censorship of content, with search queries such as #clubhouse now banned on Chinese search engines such as Baidu, as well as censorship of platform, as users with a Chinese country code can no longer download the app and even registered users using a VPN within the mainland face trouble accessing content. The rise and fall of Clubhouse in China has left many reconciling a genuine disappointment at its ban with the resigned expectation that such an outcome was inevitable, particularly once users began using the platform to disseminate uncensored content.

Yet, Clubhouse is unacceptable to the Chinese censorship regime not only because of the content shared on it, but also because Clubhouse facilitates mass social discourse beyond the reach of state surveillance. By using live audio instead of text or other recorded media, and by not requiring real-name identification like most Chinese platforms, Clubhouse forms a largely undocumented environment for social interaction. Most importantly, Clubhouse allows users to build community and voice solidarity outside China’s regulated apparatus of online surveillance. Sharing individual experiences and creating emotional bonds outside the tightly-regulated and constantly-surveilled public sphere threaten the type of social harmony that the Chinese state, and as a consequence, Chinese social media apps, seek to monitor and maintain.

Clubhouse is unacceptable to the Chinese censorship regime not only because of the content shared on it, but also because Clubhouse facilitates mass social discourse beyond the reach of state surveillance.

As we reflect on the whiplash of Clubhouse’s rapid rise and abrupt fall, what stands out most clearly is how fundamentally different conversations on Clubhouse felt from other social media platforms. Clubhouse allowed individuals from mainland China – especially those from various ethnic groups inside and outside Xinjiang – to speak uncensored for several days with people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Chinese diaspora, and overseas on incredibly sensitive political topics.

For example, a several thousand-member room openly discussed Xinjiang, with ethnic Han sharing their unease and personal experiences with the ongoing genocide. In other rooms, young adults shared their families’ experiences during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and accompanying protests nationwide. One woman described her father’s experience as a police officer posted next to the square during the massacre; another shared a relative’s experience as one of the tank drivers charged with clearing the square. Students debated whether the West could “save Hong Kong” or if electoral democracy was, in fact, the right model for China. Strikingly, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese citizens expressed a deeply personal desire to understand one another better.

Moderators of many of the most popular rooms deliberately attempted to elevate stories from ordinary individuals over commentary from established activists. For example, in one room discussing the Tiananmen Square Massacre, moderators specifically asked well-known activists to moderate their speech so individuals from across the Chinese-speaking world could share their memories of the incident. Sometimes users challenged each others’ stories, but by focusing on individual narratives over conceptual debates, groups upheld a remarkably candid environment for political discourse.

In an era when online communication is dominated by writing and video, and stored for posterity in the bowels of the internet, these discussions were charged with a deep sense of ephemerality. Content shared on Clubhouse disappears as it is created, with no built-in method for recording conversations. This, combined with the near certainty that Clubhouse would be blocked, created a great sense of urgency unique among online platforms. Many politically sensitive chat rooms ran continuously for days at a time, with new voices constantly joining in and volunteer moderators working in shifts. Meanwhile, Internet trolls, pro-nationalist accounts vowing to record and report anti-government speech, and known state media personnel monitored Clubhouse conversations the whole time. Yet, the conversations continued until the app was blocked.

Undoubtedly, part of the attraction of Clubhouse was the chance to have candid discussions on issues like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, with people from Xinjiang and Hong Kong actually present alongside mainland Chinese. Yet equally important was the opportunity for individuals to develop bonds with people across the political and cultural fault lines of the Mandarin-speaking world. Discourse on censorship in China tends to focus on the information itself: what is or is not allowed to be shared, discussed, and debated. But the true impact of the Great Firewall is not just to limit what information can be shared, but to limit who can speak with whom. Clubhouse made possible connections between individuals inside and outside the country seeking to understand each other beyond the boundaries placed by China’s ever-present systems of surveillance and censorship.

In spite of the fact Clubhouse never had a chance to persevere in China, there is nonetheless a palpable sense of disappointment that entrenches our frustration with China’s censorship regime. Chinese state media often dismisses dissidents and activists as puppets of the West, but Clubhouse gave mainland Chinese an opportunity to engage with real humans of different political persuasions and break past these stereotypes. At the same time, Clubhouse also belied the myth that mainland Chinese who have prospered under the current system are unwilling to question it. The desire to engage in difficult, challenging conversations, even at personal risk, shows how deeply interested many mainland Chinese are in the future of their country and reminds us of the enduring spirit of individuals to engage in candid, challenging conversations.

Zoe Jordan is a Research Assistant at the Henry L. Stimson Center. Previously, Zoe was a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. She researches China-South Asia politics and security, lived in China for six years, and speaks Mandarin. 

Vivek Pisharody researched rural education at Peking University. In his last project, published in the Nikkei Asian Review, he traveled the length of the China-Russia border and conducted interviews in Mandarin with local residents and officials about cross-border Belt-and-Road projects. 

Zoe Jordan and Vivek Pisharody

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