Chinese censorship blocks Clubhouse
It was, its users feared, a matter of time. Chinese censors have mobilized fast. The Clubhouse voicemail app, which describes itself as “a space for casual and direct conversations,” had become a rare space for freedom of expression in this country for those who could access an invitation to enter. in her. This Monday it has been blocked, after a weekend in which hundreds of citizens of this country debated in their chats on issues such as the re-education camps in Xinjiang or the relations between China and Taiwan.
The application, which only works with the IPhone operating system, has been working for a year, but for a week it had exploded in popularity, after the founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, intervened in one of his chats, or “ rooms”. In China, where until then it had gone unnoticed by both Internet users and the powerful censoring apparatus, it suddenly became a dark object of desire. At least among those in the urban and affluent middle classes who have a status symbol on their Apple mobile and have connections to get to know this social network and access one of its precious invitations. And that the application can be downloaded from Apple stores abroad, since it is not available in the Chinese version of that platform.
They are a minority in a country where the majority of mobile users use some variant of Android, although a not inconsiderable minority. On e-commerce platforms and on social media, these invitations – theoretically free – were offered for 500 yuan, or about 65 euros.
Having an invitation opened a whole world of possibilities, normally closed to those within China who do not have any of the computer tools that allow to bypass the Great Firewall, as the censorship that the government imposes within its borders is popularly known.
The attraction was, mainly, being able to speak freely, and listen to all kinds of opinions, on matters considered sensitive, from the protests in Hong Kong to the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Such conversations are heavily censored on Chinese social media, including the ubiquitous WeChat, Chinese WhatsApp, or Weibo, equivalent to Twitter. The most popular western social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter itself, are blocked.
Some of the discussions in the chats held throughout this weekend in Mandarin have developed in a “fantastically honest” way, as described by some of its participants on other social networks. One of these channels, which brought together members of the Uighur diaspora in exile and Han Chinese, the majority in the country, had dozens of participants who presented all kinds of points of view; Several of her listeners were commenting on her in real time on other social networks. Another conversation, about Tiananmen, reached the maximum of 5,000 connected users last Friday.
On Weibo, tags related to Clubhouse conversations received up to 50 million comments on the content of the discussions and the possibility of addressing all kinds of political or social issues. Others warned about the risk of leaving, as required by the application, the phone number, which in China is linked to the real identity of a user.
In the Clubhouse itself, Mandarin channels were also beginning to be created specifically dedicated to debating, almost always in a humorous tone, “how long will the Clubhouse be open” or “have you been invited to have tea for using the Clubhouse?” In China, in certain contexts, “being invited to drink tea” refers to being summoned for questioning by the police or for a warning from the authorities.
This Monday, even the nationalist newspaper Global Times, owned by the Communist Party of China, dedicated an article to the frenzy around the application, although to downplay the interest it had aroused. “Contrary to media reports describing the app as ‘a haven of free speech’, many users in mainland China consider that the political debates in the Clubhouse are often skewed and pro-Chinese voices can be easily eliminated.”
The trend caught the attention of censors. This Monday, starting at 7:30 p.m. local time (12:30 p.m. Spanish peninsular time), those who wanted to access the application from China received an error message. “Cannot establish secure connection to server.” Where the opening page of the application would show a list of conversations and the user’s activity appears an empty space, only broken by the phrase “open a new chat to start a conversation.” Some users indicated on Chinese social media that they could not receive the verification codes, necessary to activate the application, on their Chinese phone numbers.
Disappointment reactions immediately followed among its Chinese users. “They have blocked #Clubhouse in China. It is not surprising, but it is a bit disappointing ”, wrote a netizen of this nationality.