It was a rare, limited experiment with free speech in China – one that did not last long. Clubhouse was banned in China earlier this month.
Clubhouse was a relatively new social media app. Created in late 2020, it was only available to iPhone users and participation in the app was through invitation only. Its popularity stemmed from the fact that it gave users the opportunity to engage in unregulated discussion, which is something seldom found in China.
The app was divided into different “rooms” dedicated to a specific topic. One room might feature a speaker discussing bitcoin, while another may feature someone presenting on public policy. The inclusion of prominent speakers like Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk led to a surge in popularity and prestige for the app.
Politics was a favorite topic of debate on the app. Clubhouse participants from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese expats often discussed taboo subjects ranging from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to Taiwan. Users included activists, journalists, tech workers and other thought leaders.
The New York Times reported that speakers included a Uighur woman sharing her family’s experiences in Xinjiang as well as Taiwanese and Chinese nationals discussing cross-strait relations. Other publicly shunned topics included the government response to both the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square and the COVID-19 pandemic. Other chat rooms focused on cultural subjects and employment.
It was a rare, limited experiment with free speech in China – one that did not last long. Clubhouse was banned in China earlier this month. Despite its limited time and availability in China, the app’s impact quickly caused sources close to the government to work to delegitimize it.
Critics of Clubhouse
The Chinese state-backed national tabloid Global Times claimed that Clubhouse wouldn’t be popular in China, but interest in the app led to two articles and an editorial on it.
The Global Times also reported that many users were dissatisfied with the app and claims were made that the political discussions were usually one-sided and anti-China.
In an editorial for the tabloid, editor in chief Hu Xijin expressed his opposition on Clubhouse, writing that “free speech cannot be allowed to jeopardize China’s governance” and arguing that social cohesion had only been made possible thanks to the economic strides China has made in recent decades – advancements that could be threatened by the app.
In response to the Chinese government’s ban, Dr. Jamie Gruffydd-Jones, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent’s School of Politics and International Relations, stated, “From the time that Chinese citizens began to freely debate sensitive issues like Xinjiang and Taiwan on the increasingly popular Clubhouse app, Chinese authorities’ blocking of the app was inevitable.
“On one hand, a small subsection of iPhone users, who were arguably already invested in understanding other political viewpoints, and willing to pay to do so, dipped their elbows into the app.
“However, the mere possibility of a space for free and open political debate, not just for Chinese citizens to hear unfiltered views from outside the firewall but also openly express their own opinions without censorship, presented a challenge to authorities. Maintaining complete control over the narrative around these sensitive issues is a crucial part of Xi Jinping’s governance model.”
The popularity of Clubhouse has inspired some in the Chinese tech industry to develop a copy of the app. Presumably, it would include a similar platform for discussion, but only allow government-approved topics.
Dr. Gruffydd-Jones writes, “We should not be surprised to see a domestic Chinese version of Clubhouse appear soon – one that is subject to censorship and controls, but that nonetheless provides the illusion of free debate that made Clubhouse popular.”
Clubhouse joins other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in being blocked by the “Great Firewall of China” – the term applied to the censorship apparatus of the Chinese government.
Access to the app is still possible by using a virtual private network (VPN), which can disguise internet traffic. Usurping the firewall might allow users who relish open discussion to covertly use Clubhouse, which might extend the app’s relevance in China, at least for a time.
However, those who can access Clubhouse might be interested in a chat room topic that has recently become popular: The banning of Clubhouse.
Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at firstname.lastname@example.org