Future Tense

For One Week, Clubhouse Let Chinese Internet Users Past the Great Firewall

A woman looking at the Clubhouse app on her phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Clubhouse and Getty Images Plus.

If you entered the virtual “corridor” of the invite-only and iOS-only app Clubhouse over the weekend, you would see discussion rooms titled, in Chinese, “young people on both sides of the strait free-style chat,” “the Silicon Valley investor living room,” “are there internment camps in Xinjiang?” and “is now the best time to go back to China?” Inside those rooms, thousands from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other Chinese-speaking diaspora throughout the world had been queuing patiently for hours, even days, for a chance to speak their mind for a few short minutes, while others listened quietly and tentatively. Most rooms had been running nonstop for days. Moderators from one time zone would hand a room off to those in another, often after staying up all night.

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For the first time in more than a decade, select users in mainland China, usually walled off by the Great Firewall, were able to be on the same social media platform as the rest of the world, communicating freely with other Chinese-speaking communities and diaspora. (YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were blocked by the Great Firewall in 2007, 2009 and 2009 respectively.) For a younger generation, this is the first time they were able to communicate directly with their counterparts across the Taiwan Strait or other borders.

However, after one weekend many users describe as “unforgettable,” the app has been put behind the Great Firewall since early Monday morning U.S. Eastern Time or early Monday evening Beijing time. Many remain on the app via a virtual private network connection, while warning one another not to sign out, as Chinese cellphones are unable to receive the verification code needed to sign in again.

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Clubhouse was first popularized in China by Elon Musk, who has a cult following among tech-savvy Chinese and joined the platform to much fanfare on Feb. 1. Despite the app not existing in Apple’s Chinese App Store, many found ways to download it, eager to try out the new audio “drop in” social media platform for themselves. Invite codes for the app were for sale on Chinese social media for up to 300 yuan ($47). Long queues formed in WeChat groups, where the next person to get into Clubhouse would invite those behind them. These users represent the upper echelons of China’s socio-economic strata, with access to an iOS device, a foreign app store, social connections to an early invitee, or leisure time to queue for an invite code.

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Early users were lured by the high density of Western tech investors and entrepreneurs on the platform. However, as Chinese-speaking users reached critical mass, cross-border curiosity took over. Rooms aimed at connecting those outside of mainland China and those inside mushroomed. Those inside were eager to learn of different views and perspectives outside, and those outside were hungry for authentic voices from inside. The result? A decade of pent-up demand for communication with the other side of the Great Firewall was unleashed onto Clubhouse.

Early discussions were highly contentious, including occasional shouting matches. However, the moderators swiftly solved the problem by laying down rules: One speaker at a time, limited time only, no interrupting. (Unlike platforms like Twitter, moderation on Clubhouse contributes a lot toward civility.) Rooms that solved the civility problem also addressed the equity problem. Many rooms had rules where one male speaker must be followed by a female one, or a Uighur speaker by a Han speaker, or rules that users could only share first-person accounts—no retorts, rhetorical questions, or sweeping generalizations about an entire group allowed.

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Many also attribute the civility of the conversations to the humanizing effect of voices. “Once you hear someone’s voice break, you can’t help but feel empathy,” one man said on the night of Feb. 2 in the room titled “the night of clubhouse being blocked–collect 100 of lighthight moments of us being on Clubhouse.” He continued, “human voice raises the temperature of the conversation to body temperature.” He admitted to having been moved to tears on multiple occasions during his short time on Clubhouse.

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Whether or not they were political, all discussions were sincere, intimate, emotional, and full of moving personal accounts. Chinese-speaking people at home and abroad, speaking sometimes softly, other times fervidly or even tearfully, into their iPhones, shared their thoughts on and experiences of free speech (or the lack thereof), racial discrimination, China’s treatment of minorities, sexism, mental illness, domestic violence, and more.

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A Taiwanese woman shared her experience working in Shanghai, trying to fit in while maintaining her identity and dealing with not being understood by her mainlander colleagues. A  Chinese tech industry worker told of the toll China’s “996” (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) overtime work culture took on him and his family. A Cantonese woman spoke about how her friendship with her friends in Hong Kong suffered during the anti-extradition law protests in recent years. A student from mainland China shared her concern on whether democracy would make China as divided as the United States. Uighur activists told of the torture they endured daily not knowing when they will see their families again. In response to one such story, a Chinese man said: “If I had experienced what you had, I’m not sure whether I would be as strong as you.”

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For that one week, it was common to hear users, in various flavors of the Chinese language, say that Clubhouse taught them to listen (one spends much more time listening than speaking) and that it was an honor to hear from others.

Besides first-hand accounts and views, information also traveled cross-border on Clubhouse. Activists traded notes on anti-doxxing best practices; software programmers traded salary ranges between Shenzhen and Silicon Valley; domestic violence victims traded notes on self-care.

On Friday night, the anniversary of the death of China’s coronavirus whistleblower, hundreds joined a silent room titled “silent remembrance of doctor Li Wenliang.” Another room focusing lessening depression had each “speaker” play a song while exchanging no words.

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The week of Clubhouse gave us a brief glimpse of what an internet with unfiltered Chinese voices might look like. Those voices also in turn enriched others’ understanding of China. With the app now blocked, barring a small group of interlocutors with VPNs, both sides are back to guessing. The blocking feels cruel and personal as it happened at the moment when the appetite for communication had just been optimally piqued, and when so many souls yearning for a sense of connection, belonging, and cultural identity were only beginning to imagine new possibilities.

“We all have a right to speak and be heard,” said a woman in the aforementioned “highlight moments on Clubhouse” room. “We all have a right to genuine human connections.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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