Clubhouse app gives Chinese rare access to uncensored topics

by AFP

HONG KONG – Chinese internet users are flocking to a rare uncensored app to breach the “Great Firewall” and freely discuss taboo topics, including the mass detention of Uighurs, democracy protests in Hong Kong and the concept of Taiwanese independence.

Authoritarian China deploys a vast and sophisticated surveillance state to scrub the internet of dissent and prevent citizens from accessing international social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. 

But Clubhouse appears to have side-stepped the censors — for now.

The American invite-only audio app allows users to listen and participate in loosely moderated live conversations in digital “rooms”.

And in recent days, Chinese internet users have filled those rooms discussing highly censored subjects — such as Beijing’s sweeping incarceration of mostly Muslim minority Uighur communities in the far western Xinjiang region.

“A young woman from mainland China just said on Clubhouse: this is my first time getting on the real internet,” Isabelle Niu, a journalist listening to a conversation, tweeted on Sunday.

Taobao, a popular online marketplace used by millions daily, and other e-commerce sites had membership invitations for sale with prices ranging from 10 to 100 yuan ($1.5-$15), allowing some to bypass restrictions placed on invitations.

Clubhouse was launched in May last year and is currently only available on Apple devices, something only wealthier Chinese consumers can afford.

It rocketed in popularity after billionaire Elon Musk participated in a conversation on the app earlier this month.

Kaiser Kuo, host of the China-focused Sinica Podcast, live-tweeted on Sunday some of the conversations he was hearing in a room discussing the Uighur situation.

He noted how Han Chinese — the dominant ethnic group in China — and people from the persecuted Uighur community were interacting in the space.

“Very emotional, tearful profession of ‘Han guilt’ by a participant now – response by a Uyghur man assuring this woman that we are friends, and this atrocity makes the need for friendship even more important,” he tweeted.

An AFP reporter heard a speaker identifying as mainland Chinese express opposition to the term “concentration camps” — although acknowledging the existence of facilities.

In another instance, a participant said that he believed some of the western research on the Uighur detention camps but felt the numbers involved may have been exaggerated.

Many of those listening in were fascinated by the candour of the online discussions.

“I’m in a Taiwanese-run room in Clubhouse where 4,000 Mandarin speakers — including Uyghurs and Han Chinese IN CHINA, and outside are talking about… everything,” Berlin-based journalist Melissa Chan tweeted.

“From surveillance, to friends who’ve left re-educations camps, to normal stuff.”

On Monday, AFP listened in to conversations from Chinese diaspora, as well as individuals in Beijing, discussing whether the app would soon be blocked in China.

Analysts warned Beijing may soon prevent access to the app.

“The window for listening in on frank Clubhouse conversations about politics in Chinese is already closing,” said Fergus Ryan, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre.