How Clubhouse Cracked China’s Firewall

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S2: When a friend tried to get reporter Melissa Chan to join the clubhouse over the summer, she wasn’t interested. Frankly, it sounded really unappealing to me. So she wanted to invite me because it was invite only and it still is invite only. And I just passed on it. Why why did why was it not appealing to you?

S3: Because like a lot of startups in Silicon Valley, the founders get their friends to start using the product in the beginning. And so it was all these tech people talking about financing and entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

S2: Clubhouse is a social audio app, meaning that instead of there being groups like on Facebook where people respond to each other’s posts, there are rooms, channels really where up to 5000 people can be part of a real time conversation out loud. Eventually, Melissa got enough clubhouse invitations that curiosity got the better of her and she joined. When I first went on, it was very much exactly like what I expected. It confirmed all my worst expectations about the app and what I’m going to do this right now.

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S4: I’ll pull it up. Yeah, yeah. I asked Melissa to read out some of the room names that you were seeing how to brand yourself startup school. Neal, that interview, these were not the kinds of rooms that Melissa was interested in. She lives in Germany and reports on China, human rights and foreign policy. And most of what was on clubhouse was not that. So for a while, she forgot about the app.

S2: But then this club has expanded beyond Silicon Valley and its interests. It started to grow on her.

S3: I noticed that there were a lot of new users from Hong Kong, and after that there were new users from Taiwan, and then there was this moment when users from inside China and also outside China, but from the mainland started getting on board. And that’s when it got really interesting.

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S2: People in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, these are groups with long and contentious histories often mired in misunderstanding. And now they were in the same digital room speaking freely with each other, something that simply doesn’t happen.

S3: I had this moment where I said, oh, my God, they are everyone is talking to each other from Taiwan and Hong Kong and mainland China. I just stopped everything.

S5: It was like this feeling of somebody reaching out past the Great Firewall.

S1: These conversations that slipped past China’s digital barriers happened for about two weeks. Clubhouse Room stayed active for hundreds of hours while moderators took shifts so that others could sleep. The conversations seemed endless and then, predictably, the Chinese government shut it down. Today on the show, a momentary crack in the Great Firewall. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to What Next? TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us. You decided to upgrade your outdoor deck, so you ordered the essentials, a power washer, a set of patio chairs and a shiny new grill, and you used your Bank of America cash rewards, credit card, choosing to earn three percent cashback on online shopping or up to five point twenty five percent as a preferred rewards member, which you put toward the cost of your most essential deconditioned. A bird feeder apply for yours at Bank of America. Dotcom slash more rewarding. Copyright 2020 Bank of America Corp..

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S2: When you go in the clubhouse, you can feel like a weird cross between listening to a TED talk and a confessional. Sometimes people give what sound like canned presentations. Other times it’s much more personal.

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S3: It’s essentially real time audio. It’s like a phone call. None of the content and the conversations are saved. So if you miss a chat, then you miss the chat. These rooms sometimes have thousands of people and those who want to speak put their hand up and sometimes they wait for hours.

S2: Does it does it feel different for you than other social media platforms? Like when I’ve got on, it’s it’s just like eavesdropping kind of it does feel different than other social media apps.

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S3: So you know better than anybody the intimacy of audio in certain rooms, especially the rooms that I ended up spending a lot of time in, people really shared personal thoughts in a way that you wouldn’t share even if you had a meal with somebody that you met for the first time. And then on the other hand, there is an anonymity to it in the sense that it’s not like a zoom video conference where you see the other person’s face. And so you can sort of hide behind your avatar, your your profile picture and just talk like with any social media app, it’s impossible to verify that the people on clubhouse are telling the truth about their lives.

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S2: But Melissa said these detailed conversations felt real and raw.

S3: There was this moment where somebody was talking about Changgeng and what was going on there. And the person offhandedly mentioned, Yeah, I’m there right now and I’m a weaker wiggers.

S2: An ethnic group in the Shenzen region have been systematically surveilled and detained by the Chinese government. More than a million have been sent to internment camps. Getting to hear their voices, especially in real time, is astonishingly rare. It was like a voice that I’ve personally been wanting to hear so much.

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S3: I mean, of course, there’s been so much good journalism done about the detention camps in Xinjiang, but to hear somebody in real time, it just felt very visceral.

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S2: What were you hearing? So everyone it’s sort of like open mic.

S3: Everyone sort of gets on stage and then talks for a few minutes and then sort of somebody else comes up and says their share. So people were asking people in the room, including Han Chinese. And when I say Han Chinese, I mean the ethnic majority Han population in China were asking him what was going on there. And he was confirming things that has been reported, such as security checkpoints, friends who were in reeducation camps but were now out. He said they were being forced to learn Mandarin, that they had to learn about Xi Jinping political ideology. And, you know, they didn’t really like to talk about what happened when they were in there. Then there was a Han Chinese woman who was overseas, but she had grown up in China and she was clearly fairly new overseas. And she started talking about how ashamed she felt being Chinese, knowing that her government was doing this, feeling so helpless because there’s no way you can lobby an authoritarian state. And she felt helpless about what was happening in Xinjiang. And she was saying this. And you could tell that she was tearing up and she was saying that Chinese are standing on the wrong side of history. And there were wiggers in the room, both, of course, this person who had said he was in China and a few wigger activists who live and work overseas.

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S2: But the rooms were not all about coming together. There was conflict, too. There were several thousand people in a room and there was a Han Chinese who denied that anything had happened to the wiggers, that it was all Western media propaganda and fake news. And after this person spoke, Owego took the stage and tried to methodically rebut. What was said, but he just broke down and started crying about to cry and and he put himself on mute so that we couldn’t hear the sobs, but you imagine it and the room was just quiet. No one knew what to say, and it reminded me that what’s happened on clubhouse for the Chinese speaking world hasn’t just been a Kumbaya moment. It’s also been extremely painful sometimes you had this tweet where you said, I feel like I’m bingeing free expression on clubhouse because you were listening in these Mandarin rooms to people from all over. I think for people who maybe don’t follow news from mainland China or from around mainland China, they don’t understand how extraordinary this is. It’s like if.

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S3: Han Chinese, Hong Kong is Taiwanese wiggers, Tibetans all got into a basement bar in New York City and did an open mic together, just 100 of them.

S2: And that sense of intimacy, it just doesn’t happen in real life. There is another aspect of the conversation that’s unusual, because clubhouse only works on an iPhone and you need an invitation. It’s out of reach for most Chinese Internet users. Clubhouses invite only. Yeah, and it’s only available on the iPhone and it’s not available on China’s Apple store. So this is a very elite group of mainland Chinese users, and it’s hard to know how many of them were on there, but I would say a few thousand, maybe 10000, maybe a little bit more than that.

S3: If you were in China and you happen to listen to this and then you ask around and say, hey, have you heard of clubhouse? Most people would be like, no drop in the bucket of one point four billion people. But again, I think that you just don’t get this kind of engagement. And honestly, wigger activists especially who are embedded in dealing with all the things that are happening, I don’t think they’ve really heard from Han Chinese in that way.

S2: And it’s really meaningful for people who’ve gone through trauma to hear that you had another tweet where you looked at the name of one of the rooms, which was are their concentration camps happening in Xinjiang? And I thought that was so interesting because it seemed to me to be showing I don’t know if it was skepticism or if it was actual curiosity on the part of some Han Chinese in these rooms, really wondering like what is happening that we don’t know about or can’t know about. I think it expressed actual curiosity, but I also felt like the name of the room itself reveals the the framework in which everything is happening, you know, it really shouldn’t be a question mark.

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S3: It should just be a period. There are concentration camps or detention camps in Changgeng It’s not a question mark, but the fact it is really underscores the information asymmetry that we have here, where a lot of people behind the Great Firewall might know a little bit about it, because, again, going back to the fact that this is a rather elite, people probably have access to international news, but it really underscores that even people with access to international news and even mainland Chinese who live and work overseas aren’t super aware or don’t think too much about this and that they needed to ask questions of of others of wiggers to get a sense of what was really going on.

S7: We’ll be right back.

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S2: I want to pause here for a second and back up and talk about Internet censorship in China. I think most people have an understanding that online speech is very limited, that a lot of American social media companies don’t operate there. But I want to talk about how strict the control is and also how it’s changed over time. So if you were to go online in mainland China now, what can you see?

S3: You can’t see Facebook, you can’t see Instagram, you can’t see Snapchat, you can’t see Twitter.

S2: You can’t go on Gmail and you can’t do a Google search the Internet, as most Americans know, or the or the world. This is what most people mean when they talk about the Great Firewall of China. But what may be surprising is that it hasn’t been like this for all that long. Melissa remembers a time when Google was the number one search engine in China. And even though there was a censorship apparatus in place, it was slower and not quite as harsh as it is now.

S3: So a lot of things have changed over the last decade. And what you can see in China are social media apps and platforms that are Chinese that the government can control. And especially since the rise of Xi Jinping, it’s been even worse in terms of the level of censorship you used to be able to use Weibo, which is a Chinese version of Twitter, which is still around. And you could you could say things and eventually maybe the tweet, the Weibo would be deleted and censored.

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S2: But it there was a period where everyone could read it, people could read it. What happened when she took over? It happened really slowly, like one thing, you know, chipping away.

S3: But it was very clear that it was a new sheriff in town for lack of a better way of explaining it. Suddenly, virtual private networks, which is one way for Chinese to circumnavigate blocked websites, were harder to use to. So they were throttling the VPN so that they knew. And at some point, the government also moved in to force real name registration of Weibo accounts. That really changed things because, you know, more pseudonyms, no more pseudonyms. And of course, as we know on Twitter, you can still use pseudonyms as you can to a certain extent on a lot of other social media apps. So that really changed things in terms of cooling the temperature, in terms of what people say.

S2: It’s because of this strict environment. But the clubhouse conversations were such a big deal. So I was in one room where Taiwanese and mainland Chinese were talking about Taiwan, which is an independent democracy that Beijing considers part of China that needs to eventually return to China.

S3: And so it’s a very touchy topic. And there is a lot of propaganda that Beijing does in terms of Taiwan. And this propaganda just is not just in media, but also in public education in China. So from a very young age, you’re sort of fed a narrative about Taiwan. So it was super interesting to hear people from Taiwan explain things to people inside China.

S5: They would ask questions like, well, you’re a democracy. And I’ve been I’ve been in this room listening to you guys for a few hours. And it’s clear that you guys are progressive. So what if, you know, there’s a referendum in Taiwan and there are and they vote on X and you you don’t support X?

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S2: So what happens then? And the Taiwanese were sort of saying, well, we’re democracy, so we have to accept the results of of something we disagree with.

S5: And then, you know, maybe we’ll protest, maybe we’ll all be our politicians. Maybe we’ll try to get the word out in media. But it was just so interesting to you. It was almost like people like teaching democracy.

S2: And that’s also where I can see why the Chinese state would worry, because it was like an education in democracy for a lot of people listening, perhaps inevitably, the censors came for clubhouse. On Monday evening, Chinese users started to notice that access to the app was being limited. And Melissa says on this kind of thing happens. There’s no announcement, no justification. Clubhouse just started not allowing people to sign in. The ones who were already online could see the app behaving strangely and they realized immediately what was happening.

S3: I was in a room when news of the ban happened and one of the moderators said maybe we should get everyone in China to jump the line and get their word out before before they disappear, like give them their chance at free speech before we don’t know when.

S5: I mean, it sounds really dramatic, but it was like people who are scrambling. And then there were also people who were panicking who were saying, oh, my God, I need to. The clubhouse from my phone, how do I raise my digital footprint, like, will I get in trouble? What’s going to happen? And other people saying, oh, calm down. You know, it’s unlikely. There’s been thousands of users. There has been thousands of speakers. It’s unlikely you’ll get in trouble.

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S2: But even as this was happening, as people were worrying aloud, other users were trying to take the unsettling moment and turn it on its head. There’s a Chinese Australian artist who is in Australia right now who decided to launch a sort of protest to also make fun of them.

S5: Very serious moment. And so he started up a room and he said, everyone, come, we’re going to sing patriotic communist songs from the revolutionary era. And these lyrics, actually, you know, they’re they’re often about fighting oppression, fighting authoritarianism. So, you know, they were taking songs that were allowed in China and making them transgressive, making them a way of protesting in a safe way.

S2: I know this is a maybe a facile analogy, but people have said these are potentially little teeny cracks in the firewall. Do they hold some larger meaning for the future of the Internet in mainland China? Sadly, I don’t think so. And that analogy of a crack in the firewall, a crack in the wall with something that another Han Chinese woman inside China said. So you’re right on the mark there, what it says about the future of China, it doesn’t reflect any meaning in terms of the political direction of the country as as a political system. The direction the country is heading in is is firmly authoritarian. And I don’t see a space for anything like clubhouse. I don’t see a space for the government to even take two steps back and give people a little bit of a breather. You’ve mentioned this, but the intimacy of these conversations, even in a space that is relatively public, is really striking, even though, you know, 5000 people can be in a room. And I wonder a little bit about the consequences of engaging in that intimacy and then having it yanked away, that it is both cathartic and startling.

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S5: Absolutely. And no one was under the impression that this would last. Everyone knew that it would be blocked, that this moment would end. It was always a question of when. That’s why I said that I would felt like I was bingeing, free expression, because I knew that it would end. And you have to sort of binge and you have to intake it.

S3: There’s there was another activist in Hong Kong who said that he felt like he wanted a thousand phones in a thousand years, which I felt was such a poetic way of explaining that yearning to communicate.

S5: And the other thing it underscored was, of course, that.

S3: All citizens are, frankly, better than their governments if if Chinese citizens had a say in the way their government conducted foreign policy and domestic policy, China wouldn’t look the way it is today. And that’s heartbreaking to.

S1: Melissa Chan, thank you so much. Thank you so much, Lizzie. Melissa Chan is a journalist with the Global Reporting Center. We reached out to clubhouse for comment on China blocking the app, but we didn’t hear back by recording time. That is it for us today, TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate podcasts. TBD is part of the larger What Next? Family TV is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you want to learn more about speech online, check out Future Tense is Free Speech Project, which you can find at Slate dot com slash Future Tense. And I really want to recommend you go back and listen to this past Monday’s episode of What Next? Mary Harris tells the story of how a young, inexperienced startup in Philadelphia botched the city’s covid vaccine rollout. It’s a story that had me yelling at my phone. All right. Have a good weekend. Monday is a holiday and Mary Harris will be back on Tuesday. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.