Chinese internet users have flocked to the audio-only social media app, Clubhouse, for uncensored discussions on political and human rights subjects, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the persecution of Uighurs. But there are fears the popularity of the app could lead to censorship or recrimination.
The invitation-only US app, which is currently restricted to iPhones, allows users to listen in to discussions and interviews in quasi conference-call style online rooms. Running for almost a year, it became suddenly popular last week – particularly in China.
E-commerce sites are reportedly selling invitation codes for up to $70, and over the weekend Chinese journalists, analysts and Twitter users monitored conversations between thousands of Han Chinese, Uighurs and Taiwanese, freely discussing sensitive topics including detention camps in Xinjiang, surveillance, and democracy.
According to people listening in, some of the rooms hosted “fantastically candid” conversations about the knowledge of Uighur detention camps and abuse within mainland China and how to navigate the blanket denials of the Chinese government with the accounts of former detainees and families of current ones.
“I feel like I’m bingeing free expression on Clubhouse,” wrote journalist Melissa Chan on Twitter.
Several people noted that the demographics of users was not representative of China’s 1.4 billion people.
“The big Chinese-language channels were nevertheless heavily-dissident leaning, with many users based overseas. There were also many users from Hong Kong and Taiwan joining from outside the Firewall, who may have further skewed the general political tone of the channels,” wrote journalist and author of The Great Firewall of China, James Griffiths.
But the explosion of uncensored discussion about topics that the Chinese government goes to extraordinary lengths to suppress made many wonder how long it would last.
China’s internet is heavily regulated and censored, both by the government and by service providers that make their own assessments on what the government would want them to censor. Social media like Whatsapp, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are banned, and people have been prosecuted – most recently citizen journalist Zhang Zhan – for using them to share information.
Currently users don’t need a VPN to access Clubhouse. The conversations are not recorded by the app, offering a certain level of privacy, but there is little to stop viewers recording it themselves, and some pro-Beijing Twitter account holders boasted over the weekend of taking screenshots of participant details and transcribing conversations.
There have also been warnings that the server provider is thought to be used by Clubhouse is a Chinese company, Agora. Analyst Fergus Ryan, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, noted the company had previously disclosed it was maybe subject to Chinese laws and regulations requiring network operators to “provide assistance and support in accordance with the law for public security and national security officials to protect national security or assist with criminal investigations”.