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Last-minute scramble as China firewalls Clubhouse

Last-minute scramble as China firewalls Clubhouse
That didn't last long. Less than a week after Clubhouse exploded in the Chinese-speaking world — at least those with a VPN and access to the Apple app store — Clubhouse is banned in China. Chinese users reported Monday evening Asia time that it was blocked. As usual, the Chinese government did not issue an announcement or explain its reasoning; news simply spread that the app had become inaccessible.

Clubhouse had provided the first real opportunity in over a decade for Chinese-speaking populations — including mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese and the larger Chinese diaspora — to communicate with each other, uncensored, in one place. Facebook and Twitter were censored in China in 2009, following deadly riots in Xinjiang in Western China.

What's happening:

  • People from "inside" the Chinese state system, or with families in state law enforcement were on it, too. Not only were they lurking, they were speakers, too. One user on Monday night just said that they believed Clubhouse wouldn't be banned in China overnight because China was becoming more confident in its governance. Ironically, Clubhouse became inaccessible in China a few hours after that assessment was made.
  • Many mainland Chinese users are still on Clubhouse, for now. They continued to access Clubhouse via VPNs Monday night after the block.
  • Users are hurriedly exchanging alternative contact info while they can. They are worried that it soon might become harder for them to access Clubhouse. Some have changed their profile images to QR codes to various Clubhouse friend groups on WeChat. Some have listed their Weibo and Douban handles in bios.
  • It was a rare, remarkable moment. Candid conversations occurred in multiple chat rooms on Clubhouse over the past week between Han Chinese, Uyghurs, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers and the overseas diaspora. On Sunday, more than 4,500 people tuned in to a Mandarin chat room discussing massive human rights abuse in Xinjiang. The conversations went on for hours and moved many listeners. Politics was just one topic discussed on the platform. Users were talking just about everything — art, life, work, gossip. Artist Ai Weiwei called the week of expression bursts a carnival.

How users are reacting:

    • Many fear repercussions for their use of Clubhouse. The fear is not unfounded. One troll said they took screenshots and claimed that they had recorded many of the conversations and had a transcript. Many Chinese users have expressed unease about Agora, the technology provider behind Clubhouse and a NASDAQ-listed Chinese tech company with operations in both China and the U.S. Users say they fear that the Chinese government could collect user bios and acoustic fingerprints through Agora. One Agora co-founder, Tony Wang, has told the South China Morning Post that the company doesn't store user data.
    • Some are still hopeful. The rare, unfiltered Mandarin conversations that occurred on Clubhouse gave slim hope to many Chinese Clubhouse users who felt their voices had long been suppressed. Some are still hopeful and wish to keep the conversations going. One Chinese user told Protocol the past few days restored their optimism and faith in social media. Rayhan E. Asat, a Uyghur lawyer who lives in the U.S. and who says her brother, Ekpar Asat, is in an internment camp in Xinjiang, said it was heartening to see the solidarity between Han people, Uyghurs and other Turkic people. "I hope people can find ways to continue these discussions so that together we can close these brutal concentration camps," she told Protocol. "I don't believe Han people wish to be citizens of a country that commits genocide but a country that celebrates diversity."
    • "It was worthwhile." Zuola, a dissident blogger in Taiwan who moderated a marathon chat room that facilitated conversations between mainlanders, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, said the fact that people from different backgrounds were able to speak in an orderly manner and share their thoughts proves that "democracy is a good thing." "By asking participants to just share ideas, not to refute others' views, I was able to create a sense of a moderate and rational community," he told Protocol. "Many people were touched to have such an environment to speak and listen, which made me feel that the 130 hours of non-stop live streaming was worthwhile."
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