Op-Ed: What Clubhouse conversations on Chinese politics tell us about Chinese propaganda

While many mainland Chinese users on

Op-Ed: What Clubhouse conversations on Chinese politics tell us about Chinese propaganda

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While many mainland Chinese users on Clubhouse were liberal-leaning, dominant CCP narratives still permeated audio threads

(Source: Reuters / Thiago Prudêncio / SOPA Images / Sipa USA)

In the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year in February 2021, thousands of users from mainland China found an oasis of free speech on Clubhouse, an audio-chat messaging app launched in April 2020 by Alpha Exploration Co. On the app, Chinese users shared their opinions about political topics that are deemed by the Chinese government as “sensitive” and banned in the domestic internet ecosystem, including relations between China and Taiwan, Uighur internment camps, and the Hong Kong democratic movement. For the first time in a while, the world beyond China also got to know the voices of Chinese citizens.

This brief window of opportunity for users from mainland China closed on February 8, with the sudden ban of the app by the Chinese Communist Party. A previous DFRLab op-ed described how that window afforded Chinese speakers from across the world the rare opportunity to speak openly with people in mainland China. Even as observers noted that those participating in Clubhouse were likely a more open-minded subset of mainland Chinese, an examination of the chats from that weekend demonstrate just how pervasive Chinese government and state media narratives are.

This is especially true regarding narratives that underscore the historic and contemporary importance of Chinese identity as a unified community and the defense of CCP rule in the name of “national security.”

One penetrating narrative voiced on Clubhouse corresponded to the phrase, “collusion with foreign forces,” which is regularly used by Foreign Ministry officials and state media when talking about minority rights and democratic movements in China. The phrase often implies that there are external actors involved in these movements whose intention is not to help secure human rights or democracy, but to divide China from within, much like what happened during the “century of humiliation,” as imperial power stepped in the country with their colonial ambitions, where China lost its developmental ascendancy after the Qing Dynasty. The phrase is widely used by government spokespeople, including Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian, as well as the mouthpieces of the party, People’s Daily and Global Times, although little evidence has been provided to substantiate the claims of foreign interference.

This narrative was most often referenced on Clubhouse by users who currently reside in mainland China or grew up there. In a room discussing minority rights, a Chinese diasporian living in France asked the speakers, who belonged to Chinese ethnic minorities, whether human rights organizations in the West care about the culture of these ethnic groups, or whether they are simply using these groups as means to undermine China’s international image. Following his question, another speaker argued that talking about ethnic minority culture shouldn’t involve politics. Similarly, a third speaker said that issues including minority rights, human rights, and democratic progress had become a battlefield of constructivist discourse between the U.S. and China, arguing that in order to defend the national security of China in realpolitik, it is essential to unite the political ideology across the nation against the “external” ideals pushed by the United States. The two arguments rest on the same assumption: that individual cultural rights are far less important than the party’s designated agenda of territorial integrity and forming a “unified country.”Meanwhile, another common CCP narrative was repeated across a number of Clubhouse chats when discussing the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively, and aligning with that of the CCP government’s emphasis of the military superiority of the People’s Liberation Army and citation of historical unity between Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland as evidence for its political legitimacy over these two territories. On one hand, these narratives seek to intimidate the Taiwanese government with China’s hard power. On the other hand, they attempt to appeal to the emotions of the Taiwanese and Hong Kongese residents in establishing a community of “One China.” Moreover, while the government has avoided direct mentions of initiating war against Taiwan and insisted on “peaceful unification,” utilizing hard power has always been hinted at by state media through propaganda regarding the Chinese military posture against Taiwan and statements by state media editors, including Global Times’s Hu Xijin.

Some speakers on Clubhouse shared a similar worldview. For example, one user argued that “using force to unite with Taiwan” (“武力统一台湾”) remains a necessary last resort for the CCP government and powerful deterrence to Taiwan because the CCP has a comparatively more advanced army. Additionally, many of the users from the mainland started their discussion about Taiwan’s independence and democratic movements in Hong Kong by introducing themselves as mainland citizens “with many friends from across the strait or from Hong Kong.” and who think that there is a shared identity as “Chinese” for all of these groups of people. But just as some speakers in the room pointed out, there has been an increasing divergence of identities among communities of Mandarin speakers, Cantonese speakers, and Southern Min/Taiwanese speakers. The historical meanings of “China” and “Chinese” have gradually evolved into more modern concepts closely associated with the polity under the rule of CCP government.

The “Clubhouse weekend” connected a population of younger Chinese people who have lived through decades of CCP propaganda with the rest of the world. While the opportunity for Chinese speakers across the world to connect in an open format was notable, so too was the chance to hear what mainland youth believe in and what CCP narratives pushed within the highly controlled domestic information space have stuck. While the users accessing this app are more likely to lean towards the more liberal side on the political spectrum, dominant CCP narratives were still there, indicative of the power a full-blown propaganda paradigm can have. Moreover, as information regulation policies tighten while the Chinese nationalist propaganda campaign becomes more aggressive and sometimes even chauvinist, demonstrated by the recent trends of more active content removal and more well-crafted nationalist propaganda system under the more powerful Publicity Department, without more “Clubhouse” moments, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of political discussion in China.

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