Beijing blocks access to Clubhouse app after surge in user numbers

US social media platform that allows users to discuss sensitive subjects falls foul of China’s censors

Chinese authorities have blocked domestic access to the audio-only social media app Clubhouse after it attracted untold numbers of Chinese people to uncensored, cross-border discussions on political and human rights subjects.

The invitation-only US app, which only works on iPhones and was released in April 2020, allows users to listen in to discussions and interviews in quasi conference-call style online rooms. It suddenly became popular last week – particularly in China, where people seized the opportunity to discuss taboo topics including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the persecution of Uighurs.

On Monday evening Chinese users reported the platform was no longer available, ending a short-lived period of free political expression in a country where the government goes to extraordinary lengths to suppress it.

The app’s suppression had been predicted on the Twitter-like platform Weibo, where users were urged to “cherish such a short and open opportunity for dialogue”.

Users shared their Clubhouse discoveries, and commented on the rare chance for people in mainland China to openly and freely discuss politics and gender issues with their peers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. One user called it “the Renaissance of China”. A related hashtag was viewed more than 50m times. But those conversations were soon also scrubbed from the internet, as well as the hashtag related to the blocking of Clubhouse, viewed at least 50,000 times before it was censored, according to reports.

E-commerce sites had reportedly been selling invitation codes for up to $70, and over the weekend Chinese journalists, analysts and Twitter users monitored conversations between thousands of Han Chinese, Uighurs and Taiwanese, freely discussing sensitive topics including detention camps in Xinjiang, surveillance and democracy.

According to people listening in, some of the rooms hosted “fantastically candid” conversations about the knowledge of Uighur detention camps and abuse within mainland China and how to navigate the blanket denials by the Chinese government of accounts of former detainees and families of current detainees.

“I feel like I’m bingeing free expression on Clubhouse,” the journalist Melissa Chan wrote on Twitter.

Several people noted that the demographics of users was not representative of China’s 1.4 billion people.

“The big Chinese-language channels were nevertheless heavily dissident leaning, with many users based overseas. There were also many users from Hong Kong and Taiwan joining from outside the firewall, who may have further skewed the general political tone of the channels,” James Griffiths, the journalist and author of The Great Firewall of China, posted.

China’s internet is heavily regulated and censored, both by the government and by service providers that make their own assessments on what the government would want them to censor. Social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are banned, and people – most recently the citizen journalist Zhang Zhan – have been prosecuted for using them to share information.

The Clubhouse conversations are not recorded by the app, offering a certain level of privacy, but there is little to stop viewers recording it themselves, and some pro-Beijing Twitter account holders boasted over the weekend of taking screenshots of participant details and transcribing conversations.

On Monday afternoon, China’s state-backed tabloid, the Global Times, reported on the sudden popularity of the app, but primarily quoted users who found the political discussions “boring” or one-sided, and labelled discussions of the Xinjiang camps as “rumours” lacking in evidence.

There had also been warnings that the server provider is thought to be used by Clubhouse is a Chinese company, Agora. The analyst Fergus Ryan, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, noted the company had previously disclosed it was perhaps subject to Chinese laws and regulations requiring network operators to “provide assistance and support in accordance with the law for public security and national security officials to protect national security or assist with criminal investigations”.


Helen Davidson in Taipei

The GuardianTramp

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