China blocked the social-media app Clubhouse on Monday after a week in which users conversed on topics typically censored in Chinese media, including the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang Province and the status of Taiwan.
Clubhouse, a Silicon Valley startup created in 2020, facilitates audio discussions between users and can only be joined with an invitation from another user. The app has gained popularity in elite social circles in the U.S., but Chinese users began joining en masse after Elon Musk appeared on the app in January. Musk has an impassioned base of followers in China.
However, some of the chatrooms that opened held conversations on topics that are generally censored in China. Some conversations occurred between ethnic Han Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the latter of which confirmed reports of concentration camps run by the government in the province. Taiwanese citizens also spoke with Chinese residents on the status of the island, whose independence is denied by China.
“Clubhouse is exactly what Chinese censors don’t want to see in online communication—a massive, freewheeling conversation in which people are talking openly,” Xiao Qiang, founder of the China Digital Times, told The New York Times on Monday. “It’s also a reminder that when there is an opportunity, many Chinese have a desperate need to talk to each other and to hear different view points.”
Clubhouse also offered a rare outlet to express dissent toward the Chinese government. For example, a group of users created a chat group for a silent memorial to Li Wenliang, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Li, an ophthalmologist and resident of Wuhan, was one of the first medical professionals to warn of the coronavirus outbreak. Li himself died of coronavirus on February 6, 2020, and Clubhouse users set up the memorial chat on Saturday to mark the anniversary of his death.
China maintains an internet “Great Firewall” to prevent widespread usage of foreign media, although Chinese citizens often connect to foreign sites with VPN’s. American companies Google, Facebook, and Twitter are all banned in China.