After a brief honeymoon, China appears to have blocked a popular, invitation-only audio app called Clubhouse.
The iPhone-only app had seen a surge in users over the weekend as users were able to discuss taboo topics like reunification with Taiwan and the plight of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province.
But on Monday, users began reporting difficulty connecting, fueling speculation the app had been blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
“Clubhouse created the space many Chinese yearn for – the means to communicate with each other and the world outside of the Great Firewall unconstrained by censorship,” said Angeli Datt, a senior research analyst at Freedom House. “The Chinese government swiftly blocked Clubhouse because it knows the most effective way to control free speech is to swiftly clamp down on the channels and tools used to communicate rather than policing individual conversations.”
The user surge started last week when Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla appeared on the app unexpectedly and held a discussion with Vlad Tenev, CEO of Robinhood, the app instrumental to the GameStop drama. Chinese media covered the conversation.
According to Bloomberg, Clubhouse was a hot topic on Chinese social media, and some were even selling invitations to the app on Alibaba’s online retailer. Some of the invites were going for as much as $44.60, according to Bloomberg.
As with many banned apps, Chinese users can still access Clubhouse using a virtual private network (VPN), and CNN reported that many were doing so. One such user was Susan Liang, a 31-year-old from Shenzhen.
“It is too rare an opportunity. Everyone has lived under the Great Firewall for so long, but on this platform, we can talk about anything,” she told CNN. “It’s like someone drowning and can finally breathe in a large gulp of air.”
She said she feared a crackdown as VPNs not approved by the government are illegal.
Clubhouse has so far not responded to media inquiries, Reuters reported.
While Clubhouse was fully accessible, VOA Mandarin observed several Chinese-language clubs where users joined discussions on wide-ranging and sensitive topics including Uighur rights, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan’s independence, China’s national identity and gender issues.
In a club conversation titled “Politically Incorrect Reporters,” users engaged in a heated debate about the continuing influence of former U.S. President Donald Trump. In another people were chatting about women’s rights in different places
In the “room of silence” chat, the description read, “Today is the death anniversary of Dr. Li Wenliang. We remember him not because he’s a hero, but because everyone of us could be him.” Li was a Chinese whistleblower doctor who died from the coronavirus a year ago.
Graham Webster, editor of the DigiChina project at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, told VOA Mandarin that Chinese netizens had seized the rare chance to hold open, free discussions with their peers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“[The conversations] were open and people were having a really interesting engagement in a way that they might not be able to in writing, which is a much more censorship and surveillance intensive form,” he said.
He added that the app was helping people working across the Chinese border to have connections with one another when travel is difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A netizen said in a Chinese language chat room that he/she valued the platform mostly because it offered people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan a chance to sit down and just talk about anything.
“I think it’s a rare ecology, it’s quite Utopian,” the user said, “I want to learn more and get more information from it.”
Datt said it is unlikely that China will unblock the app, adding, “Even if the developers of the app comply with Chinese censorship and surveillance laws, which would be difficult for a small startup, there is no guarantee that censors would unblock Clubhouse.”
Adam Xu and Lin Yang of VOA Mandarin contributed to this report.