Op-Ed: Why a weekend spent on Clubhouse was monumental for many Chinese users

Before China blocked access, the app

Op-Ed: Why a weekend spent on Clubhouse was monumental for many Chinese users

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Before China blocked access, the app gave Chinese speakers globally the rare chance to speak openly with people in mainland China

In this photo illustration, the Clubhouse logo seen displayed on a smartphone screen in front of the Chinese national flag. (SOURCE: Reuters/Rafael Henrique / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

The information environment on the Chinese mainland is heavily controlled and monitored. To ward off threats to the continued leadership of the Chinese Communist Party regime, the Chinese government goes to great lengths to ensure that information that might spark social or civil unrest is not available to its citizens. For many years, the Chinese government has been wary of social media platforms that might facilitate popular mobilization. For example, on China’s popular WeChat app, keywords that refer to sensitive political issues are often censored and groups cannot exceed 500 people. Given this reality, it is often the case that news stories that are widely publicized in other parts of the world never reach wide swaths of the Chinese public. And yet a weekend of discourse on the increasingly popular Clubhouse app in early February 2021 threatened to upend the carefully constructed information environment overseen by the Chinese government.

Clubhouse has been making global headlines as it rolls out to millions of users around the world. In early February, a wave of new users from various Chinese-speaking locales, including mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as a wide range of individuals from the Chinese diaspora, downloaded Clubhouse in the week approaching the Chinese New Year.

On Saturday, February 6, many Mandarin speaking users perusing the app noticed a room named, “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?”

Despite widespread media reports outside of China documenting systemic abuses in Xinjiang, many Chinese mainlanders have never heard of Uighur internment camps or forced disappearances. The horrific stories peppering Western outlets are entirely absent from domestic, state-controlled news in China.

Furthermore, in China, approximately 92 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people are of the Han ethnic group. The country has 55 other ethnic minorities, one of which is the Uighur ethnic group. The majority-minority dynamic in this particular case often leads to erasure of the plight of the Uighurs: even among many of the more educated, cosmopolitan mainlanders that have enough contact with the outside world to have gotten wind of the camps, there is a rampant phenomenon of “Han denialism” about these camps within China. Westerners who encounter this denialism are sometimes surprised. Too many of those who are aware of them seem to brush off mention of the Uighur camps, pegging the stories as rumors created by Western countries with an intent to smear China’s reputation or justifying the camps with the classic party line that these are necessary “reeducation centers” being used to fight back against a dangerous terrorist threat from the ethnic group.

With this background, it may be easier to understand why what was happening in the February 6 Clubhouse room about Xinjiang’s concentration camps was truly remarkable. Over 4,000 people eventually joined the room.

Uighur participants shared heart-wrenching stories about their families’ encounters with the camps with Han listeners. Some people located in mainland China lined up in the queue to say that they had never heard of the camps. Some asked questions. But the tone of the room was perhaps most surprising. Instead of the flippant denialism often communicated in Han communities, there was a sense of openness and respect for the Uighurs telling their stories. It is worth noting that many participants have credited the hosts’ excellent moderation for the difference in tone. In the few cases when a particularly insensitive speaker did take the floor, they were expeditiously censured by peers in the speaker queue or by the moderators themselves, leaving space for the more respectful and introspective voices on the line.

The conversation lasted for hours. It was emotional. The Uighur participants were incredibly candid, and they shared heart-wrenching stories of losing their family members to the camps or living under a cloud of constant grief and fear. Some lost their composure when their time came to speak. One Han participant in the room said that he had originally joined the queue to make some skeptical comments, but after listening to the many speakers that came before him, he had been overcome with emotion and cried while sitting in his car.

Over the next day, other rooms cropped up on the app focused on topics that have long been deemed too politically sensitive for public discourse in China. One room featured individuals who experienced the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In others, mainlanders, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese people all spoke together about contentious political issues that are usually too tough to broach without yelling or insults being thrown. (The moderation seemed to make the difference; and perhaps, the inkling that this moment was precious and fleeting kept things more civil, as well.)

While this sort of free-ranging discussion is rare and notable, there is, of course, a caveat. Clubhouse brought together a wide range of Mandarin-speaking iPhone users around the world, as the app is only available via iOS. As noted by host Kaiser Kuo on an episode of the Sinica Podcast, iPhone users in China are understood to be more ideologically liberal and open to the West than those on other devices. In the context of U.S.-China tensions, choosing Chinese brands like Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi, over American iPhones is seen as an expression of national pride. So the subset of Chinese iPhone users that self-selected into the Clubhouse conversations were likely more open to an even-handed conversation about the Xinjiang issue than a more representative group of Chinese people would have been. Nevertheless, the sheer fact that they were able to have this conversation was astounding.

By the evening of Monday, February 8 in China, the Clubhouse app was blocked across the mainland. Abruptly, people realized that, unless they had a foreign iPhone app store and phone number, they could no longer download or use the app. The moment and all the possibilities that came with it was over.

For those familiar with the Chinese government’s stance toward social media, the rapid removal of access to the app was expected. After all, Clubhouse is more difficult to censor than other apps given that conversations happen in real time. Moreover, the platform showed that individuals can have profound impact on each other even without meeting physically.

Clubhouse allowed conversations to happen. It was simple, but profound. The ability to hear people’s stories in their own voices, to sense the affect behind the words, and to share space with them touched participants deeply. It was a weekend that many will not soon forget. And perhaps most notably, it indicates that many across the Chinese-speaking world are eager for open dialogue and connection.

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