What Clubhouse Achieved When It Slipped Behind China’s Firewall

What Clubhouse Achieved When It Slipped Behind China’s Firewall
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What you need to know

The tolerant and open space on Clubhouse, however short-lived, prefigured a world in which prejudice and regional conflicts can be resolved, or at least managed to a less volatile level, through dialogue.

We know the experience of having texts, tweets, and emails misread, leading to lost friendships and flame wars. Misunderstandings also occur when we speak, but the human warmth in voices that written words sometimes fail to convey seems to better soothe extreme emotions and encourage productive conversations. This may be one of the reasons Clubhouse went viral in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in recent weeks, facilitating rare conversations that transcend political boundaries.

Mainland Chinese users rushed to join a fleeting week of free dialogue on the audio-chat platform before it was censored on Monday. Invitation codes for Clubhouse, a prerequisite for joining the app, were hawked on Taobao for as much as US$77 each.

When I received an invitation to join Clubhouse at the end of January, I found no use for it. No one in my social circle wanted to sink more time in another social media app. But by the next day, my Facebook feed was flooded with friends in Taiwan asking for invitation codes. In merely a week, the platform flourished with dozens of Mandarin-speaking chatrooms on topics ranging from dating advice, workplace gossip, and cinema to the Hong Kong protests and the oppression of Uyghurs.

Amsterdam, Netherlands - 01.19.2021: Clubhouse application view on the smartphone, controversy 2021 that hides behind the Social app. Clubhouse drop in audio chat application view on the smartphone
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / TPG Images

Jane Manchun Wong, the first Hong Kong-based user on Clubhouse, said she was surprised that the cross-strait debates didn’t devolve into name calling and yelling like they did on other social media platforms. “Clubhouse humanizes people,” she told me. “We can all just sit down and have a peaceful conversation, and afterwards we often realize maybe the other group of people aren’t as awful as how they’re described.”

Over the weekend, I stumbled into a “politically incorrect journalist” chatroom moderated by several hosts including Chinese-Australian dissident artist Badiucao. There’s no messaging feature, and this club prohibited speakers from directly questioning or answering one another. Without any intention to linger in the room, I found myself staying around and listening to several stories.

One woman spoke of her experience in the fashion industry in Shanghai, where professionals from Hong Kong and Taiwan are consistently hired for higher salaries than local Chinese. Others shared how they felt hurt by discrimination against Chinese both in Hong Kong and overseas. Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, too, encountered instances where they felt censored and bullied by Chinese nationalists. But between the pain and anger there was a perceptible desire to be heard and understood, a willingness to listen and emphasize. The tolerant and open space on Clubhouse, however short-lived, allowed the collective imagination of the collapse of the Great Firewall, prefiguring a world in which prejudice and regional conflicts can be resolved, or at least managed to a less volatile level, through dialogue.

The magic of Clubhouse lies in its intimacy and honesty, Badiucao told me. “It’s our voices and we can really feel the emotions,” he said. “It’s not only what we’re trying to say but it’s also the way we say it. It’s one way to build trust.”

Clubhouse is by no means a conflict-free zone. In a Cantonese-speaking room where Hong Kongers took questions from residents of Guangdong province, the moderators had to constantly calm hot-headed speakers. A man speaking with a hoarse voice that betrayed a superior “Hong Konger” attitude. “I don’t care if you thought Hong Kongers were stuck up, because the truth is we’re better and more capable than you,” he said in a matter-of-fact way in response to the previous speakers in China. The moderators, too, were not exactly modeling a textbook-version of civic discourse: several couldn’t refrain from snapping at Chinese commentators who said Hong Kongers’ dreams of Western democracy were too naive.

After Clubhouse was blocked in China, some users managed to access the app via a VPN; some offered to use their VPN’s to help others get back onto the platform. While the ban might hinder Clubhouse’s new user growth, Badiucao said, the situation is not much different from other censored social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. “[The audience] won’t be bigger, but it won’t be zero,” he said.

Nearly 2,000 users gathered on Monday evening in a chatroom sharing the “highlights of Clubhouse moments” while mourning the loss of free access to what has quickly become a gold mine of an online space. A Chinese user who goes by the name Alexander said he’s learned valuable lessons from listening to Taiwanese speakers over the past week. “Taiwan didn’t earn its democracy until 1987,” he said. “To many countries, democracy is still a new idea. I really hope that in my lifetime I’d see changes in China.” The chatroom went on for hours with users waiting in line for their turn to speak.

The recent Clubhouse ban in China was inevitable as the conversations became more sensitive. But censoring a new source of information can prompt more people to seek access via VPN, according to Katharin Tai, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology focusing on Chinese internet policy.

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Photo Credit: Shutterstock / TPG Images

“By blocking Clubhouse, the Chinese government might push a sudden large number of Chinese to get a VPN to continue participating in those conversations,” Tai told me, noting that the 2014 Instagram block created a new influx of VPN users.

Although most Chinese netizens won’t face worse consequences than having sensitive social media posts deleted, thousands of Clubhouse users gathered to discuss security protocols and the risks of being “invited for tea” — a euphemism for police interrogation.

“If the government decides to come after someone, they can,” Tai said. “I’d say it’s always prudent to practice at least some basic digital security.”

The high entry barrier for Clubhouse — iPhone ownership with an overseas Apple account, limited invitation code, and VPN — implies that only a very specific sample size of the Chinese population has access to the platform. But while those voices we hear may not give full scope to China’s public opinion, their varying beliefs and ideals reflect a society less homogenous — and more human — than the stereotypes and clichés would lead us to believe.

READ NEXT: Did Taiwan Miss the Boat to Change Its Work Culture?

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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