In China, an App Offered Space for Debate. Then the Censors Came.


For a little while, the social media platform Clubhouse provided the rare opportunity for cross-border dialogue on contentious topics free from the country’s usual tight controls.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s government has been ramping up its efforts to assert near-total control over what citizens read and say online.
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s government has been ramping up its efforts to assert near-total control over what citizens read and say online. Credit...Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

One by one, the chatroom participants took the digital microphone as thousands quietly listened in.

A Chinese man said he did not know whether to believe the widespread reports of concentration camps for Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang. Then a Uighur woman spoke up, calmly explaining that she was certain of the camps’ existence because her relatives had been among those interned. A man from Taiwan chimed in to urge understanding on all sides, while another from Hong Kong praised the woman for her courage in coming forward.

It was a rare moment of cross-border dialogue with people on the mainland of China, who are usually separated from the rest of the online world by the Great Firewall. For a short time, they found an open forum on the social media app, Clubhouse, to discuss contentious topics, free from the usual constraints of the country’s tightly controlled internet.

By Monday evening, the inevitable happened: The Chinese censors moved in. Many mainland users reported receiving error messages when they tried to use the platform. Some said they could only access the app by tunneling through the digital border using a VPN, or virtual private network. Within hours, more than a thousand users had tuned in to hear a discussion about the ban in a chatroom titled “Walled off, so now what?” Searches for “Clubhouse” on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo were blocked.

To many users in mainland China, it was brief window into an unfettered social media. Under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, the government has been ramping up its efforts to assert near-total digital control over what its citizens read and say online. Government-paid commenters and nationalist trolls frequently flood Chinese social media with propaganda and vitriolic messages that make it difficult to have open, public discussions about topics deemed sensitive by the government.

“It was only a matter of time,” Alex Su, 30, an editor at a technology start-up in Beijing, said in a telephone interview.

ImageClubhouse is an invitation-only iPhone app, which meant it was out of reach for most people in China even before its blocking.
Clubhouse is an invitation-only iPhone app, which meant it was out of reach for most people in China even before its blocking.Credit...Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Su added that in her brief time on Clubhouse, she had been especially moved by a conversation in which Uighurs recounted personal stories of being discriminated against in Xinjiang.

“That is really the kind of information that we don’t usually get access to in the mainland,” said Ms. Su.

It’s unclear how many mainland Chinese users were registered on Clubhouse. While it was unblocked, the app was only available on Apple’s operating system, putting it out of reach for the vast majority of Chinese who use Android. Users had to switch out of Apple’s China app store to download Clubhouse.

The app is also invite-only, which had prompted a small black market for invitation codes to emerge in recent days. Before the app was blocked, the going price for one code was up to 300 yuan, or about $46.

That did not stop thousands of Chinese users from flocking to the platform, which provides audio chatrooms that disappear when the conversations end. In recent days, several Chinese-language chatrooms had been filled to the 5,000-user capacity. Some said they were connecting from the mainland, while others identified as Chinese people based overseas. Many said they were from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Seemingly every topic on China’s censorship blacklist had been discussed. In one chatroom, participants debated which Chinese leaders were responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. In another, users shared experiences of their encounters with the Chinese police and security officials.

In a third, participants sat in silence as they mourned the one-year anniversary of the passing of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. He died of the same illness, and his death prompted the hashtag “freedom of speech” to spread widely on Chinese social media.

The app’s sudden popularity in China had prompted many to wonder how long the government would allow the party to last. Social media companies operating in China must keep tabs on the identities of users, share data with police and adhere to strict censorship guidelines.

Most major Western news sites and social media apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are blocked outright in China, and VPNs are increasingly difficult to access within the mainland. The homegrown social media platforms that are permitted in China, like WeChat and Weibo, are tightly regulated and monitored by censors.

“Clubhouse is exactly what Chinese censors don’t want to see in online communication — a massive, freewheeling conversation in which people are talking openly,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls. “It’s also a reminder that when there is an opportunity, many Chinese have a desperate need to talk to each other and to hear different view points.”

Clubhouse didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Created last year by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Clubhouse quickly took off, and as of December it had around 600,000 registered users. The app was envisioned as an exclusive virtual space for people to mingle, and its user base includes celebrities, D.J.s and politicians.

It was not until Elon Musk, a tech billionaire who enjoys a cult following in China, made an appearance on the app last month that Chinese interest began to surge. Some in China’s tech circles have already pledged to launch similar online conversation platforms.

An appearance by the tech billionaire Elon Musk, who has a cult following in China, raised the app’s profile there.Credit...Pool photo by Hannibal Hanschke

The Chinese-language chatroom topics are not all political. As with their English-language counterparts, there have been lively discussions on dating, job seeking and music. Several Chinese coders set up their own room to nerd out.

But some of the most popular Chinese-language chatrooms have centered on the most contentious topics. In one chatroom focused on relations between mainland China and Taiwan, a moderator invited people from both sides of the strait to take turns speaking.

Some Taiwanese people spoke about how even after working in the mainland, they felt they still didn’t fully understand the culture. It created, they said, a big gap between the two sides, especially on political issues.

Several users from mainland China spoke about how they had been taught in school from a young age to believe that Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing claims as its territory, was an inextricable part of China.

At times, the conversation went off the rails, as when one man who identified as Taiwanese chimed in to curse out mainland Chinese people, before quickly signing off. But for the most part, users said that the app’s use of moderators and real-time voice sharing promoted a civility and intimacy lacking on other popular social media platforms like Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Weibo.

Most major Western news sites and social media apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are blocked outright in China, and VPNs are increasingly difficult to access.Credit...Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

“Compared to some Chinese who I have met, those on the app did not give me a sense that they were taking advantage of me,” Erin Chiang, 29, a human resources specialist in Taipei, said in an interview. “I felt like they showed basic empathy as human beings.”

As the popularity of Clubhouse soared in China, so did the criticism. State media signaled its displeasure.

“There is never freedom of speech when it comes to China on overseas social media, where one-sided opinions can easily suppress voices that debunk lies,” The Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid, wrote in an English-language editorial on Monday, referring to Clubhouse.

Others called the app, with its elite users, an echo chamber of opinions — a point also acknowledged by many participants during the discussions.

“Most of our mainland compatriots will not use the app in the end,” Ren Yi, a Harvard-educated Chinese blogger who goes by the pen name “Chairman Rabbit,” wrote on Weibo on Saturday. “With the concentrated and explosive growth of overseas high-level Chinese users in the future, the content and trends will become more and more one-sided.”

But for Vinira Abdgheni, the Uighur woman who spoke up about her relatives being interned, the app was far from one-sided. If anything, she said, it was a relief to have an opportunity to confront fellow Chinese who may still have been harboring doubts about the abuses back in her home region of Xinjiang.

“I’ve tried so many channels to vent my frustrations,” Ms. Abdgheni said in a telephone interview from Tokyo, where she now lives. “So I thought while I had this opportunity to speak, I better do it because I’ve never wanted to be a silent person.”

Paul Mozur contributed reporting. Claire Fu contributed research.