China blocked the audio app Clubhouse on Monday after a remarkable few days in which it brought together people from both sides of the Great Firewall. Quickly, some Chinese turned to virtual private networks to continue using the app and join discussions about controversial topics, including Taiwan independence, Tiananmen Square, and the treatment of Uighur muslims.
In a chat Monday night US time, one speaker who claimed to be accessing the app from mainland China using a VPN said the government was probably now monitoring the discussions but said he felt it was important to be heard. Others offered a parallel to the US government’s crackdown on social media misinformation.
Grace Tien, a postdoctoral researcher in sociology and a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Center on Contemporary China, moderated one room in which participants discussed the ban. In an interview, she says a few tech-savvy friends in Shanghai were able to sign up for Clubhouse even after the apparent ban.
Clubhouse is an invitation-only, iPhone-only app that lets users create rooms in which up to 5,000 people can listen and take turns speaking. It proved a surprise hit among Silicon Valley’s influencers and their followers last year. Elon Musk recently took to the app to host a discussion.
More recently, prominent Chinese technologists and entrepreneurs were drawn to the app, leading to a surge of interest last week, before the government stepped in. Tien says the app seemed to be gaining popularity rapidly among Chinese over the weekend, but interest declined after the apparent government ban.
Tien says she found it fascinating to hear discussions over the weekend between Chinese mainlanders and outsiders on topics that are normally politically charged and devoid of nuance in both Chinese and Western media. She says she joined the discussion to add perspective from her research on religious and entrepreneurial communities in both the US and China.
“I wanted to hear how native Chinese would respond to hearing these Uighur stories,” Tien adds, referring to accounts of internment and repression of Muslims in China’s far-west province of Xinjiang, which some US politicians have called genocide.
Tien says the Clubhouse format—a rowdy kind of freewheeling digital debate club—seems good at throwing people together. “It gives you the opportunity to, in a sense, rub shoulders and have frank conversations with people that you would normally never get to meet,” she says.
Graham Webster, a research scholar at Stanford who has studied the Chinese internet ecosystem for years, was amazed by the open discussion he heard over the weekend. “All of a sudden people could actually discuss the things that fundamentally cannot be discussed on Chinese social media,” he says. “The barrier was eliminated and it was exhilarating for a lot of people.”
Another reason for the recent popularity of Clubhouse in China, Webster says, may be the pandemic as well as the upcoming Chinese new year. He speculates that those living abroad who are unable to see their family in China may have sought connections through the app.
Roger Huang, a Forbes contributor and early Clubhouse user, says plenty of people still seem to be reaching Clubhouse rooms from mainland China using VPNs. Huang cofounded Tianxia, a group on Clubhouse dedicated to US-China relations with more than 20,000 members.
Huang says the app quickly became a hub for the Chinese diaspora, hosting lively discussions between those in the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and in the West. But he says the ban may create a “social stigma” that deters some mainlanders from participating and leaves more diehard pro- and anti-China voices.
The rise and fall of Clubhouse in China reflects how intertwined the US and Chinese tech industries have become—even as political differences become more apparent and talk of a fierce technological rivalry between the two countries intensifies.