Something very unusual happened in China over the past week. Tech savvy Chinese who are usually cut off from the outside world by the so-called Great Firewall of China, suddenly found themselves able to speak their mind online and to talk openly with people from outside China’s borders. It happened on a new site called Clubhouse which got a boost this month from Elon Musk. People were actually paying for invite codes so they could become part of the conversation.
Clubhouse was first popularized in China by Elon Musk, who has a cult following among tech-savvy Chinese and joined the platform to much fanfare on Feb. 1. Despite the app not existing in Apple’s Chinese App Store, many found ways to download it, eager to try out the new audio “drop in” social media platform for themselves. Invite codes for the app were for sale on Chinese social media for up to 300 yuan ($47). Long queues formed in WeChat groups, where the next person to get into Clubhouse would invite those behind them. These users represent the upper echelons of China’s socio-economic strata, with access to an iOS device, a foreign app store, social connections to an early invitee, or leisure time to queue for an invite code.
Early users were lured by the high density of Western tech investors and entrepreneurs on the platform. However, as Chinese-speaking users reached critical mass, cross-border curiosity took over. Rooms aimed at connecting those outside of mainland China and those inside mushroomed. Those inside were eager to learn of different views and perspectives outside, and those outside were hungry for authentic voices from inside. The result? A decade of pent-up demand for communication with the other side of the Great Firewall was unleashed onto Clubhouse.
Clubhouse is different from other social media sites because people use their own voices to make their points. Conversations are moderated to prevent arguments and people yelling over one another. The result was considered “unforgettable” by some who participated.
A Taiwanese woman shared her experience working in Shanghai, trying to fit in while maintaining her identity and dealing with not being understood by her mainlander colleagues. A Chinese tech industry worker told of the toll China’s “996” (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) overtime work culture took on him and his family. A Cantonese woman spoke about how her friendship with her friends in Hong Kong suffered during the anti-extradition law protests in recent years. A student from mainland China shared her concern on whether democracy would make China as divided as the United States. Uighur activists told of the torture they endured daily not knowing when they will see their families again. In response to one such story, a Chinese man said: “If I had experienced what you had, I’m not sure whether I would be as strong as you.”
The NY Times has more:
One chatroom asked the participants to criticize the government where they lived, be it China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan or the United States. The moderator called on each speaker by asking, “So which government would you like to criticize?” In China, where open criticism is treated as treachery, it felt like performance art.
Several chatrooms were devoted to the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square, a heavily censored topic on the Chinese internet. Cai Chongguo, a student leader during the protests, talked for about four hours, sharing his stories and answering questions from thousands of people. He said he hadn’t expected that so many people would be interested…
Even during the freewheeling conversation, censorship was on the minds of many. On Monday afternoon, one room that reached Clubhouse’s maximum of 5,000 users featured speakers sharing their concerns over whether they would be questioned by the authorities for speaking out on the app. An employee at a big Chinese social media platform told the room that nobody should ever think that he or she could escape the government surveillance. He continued by saying he felt guilty about his job because it involved censorship.
And sure enough this moment of freedom came to an end Monday when the Great Firewall came down on Clubhouse.
Service in China was cut off at about 7 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Monday, according to GreatFire.org, a nonprofit U.S. group that monitors Chinese internet filtering and tries to help users circumvent it…
A foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said Tuesday he had no information about Clubhouse. He said the internet in China “is open” but is managed “in accordance with relevant laws.”
“We are determined to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests and oppose foreign interference,” Wang said.
China’s idea of the internet is that it should be just as heavily controlled as the border because in a country controlled by one party and ultimately one man, freedom of speech is a danger. Hopefully this week of freedom will help awaken in the Chinese people a sense of what they’ve lost under draconian communist control.