Clubhouse blocked in China after uncensored chats attract thousands — everything you need to know

Business & Technology

The invite-only audio-chat app offered a rare chance for Chinese-language speakers around the world to connect. But just days after thousands joined discussions about Xinjiang, Taiwan, and other sensitive issues, the app was blocked by China’s Great Firewall. 

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Clubhouse, the invite-only audio-chat app for iPhone users, was blocked in China at around 7:30pm Beijing time today, February 8. The app had surged in popularity globally after January 31, when Elon Musk hosted a conversation with Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev. 

Thousands of mainland Chinese iPhone users joined the app as it went viral, some reportedly paying up to 500 yuan ($77) for invites, which are limited to two for every new user. 

The result was a rare, and brief, opportunity for global connection among Chinese speakers who are typically separated by China’s Great Firewall. 

Rare uncensored discussions

“Are there concentration camps in Xinjiang?” (“新疆有个集中营?”) One provocatively titled chatroom hosted a moderated conversation on one of the most sensitive Chinese political issues on February 6. As SupChina’s Kaiser Kuo documented in a Twitter thread, the chat was generally candid and earnest, and trolling was minimal. Participants included Han Chinese who grew up in Xinjiang, Uyghurs exiled abroad, and other overseas Chinese. 

Another rare cross-border gathering of Chinese speakers was centered on the topic of Taiwan, with the chatroom name “Taiwan and mainland youth big random chat” (“两岸青年大乱聊”). As the New York Times documented, these cross-strait conversations appeared similarly genuine and civil, with mainland Chinese and Taiwanese people sharing their stories of cultural and political misunderstanding. 

The Chinese tech behind Clubhouse

With so many Chinese people expressing controversial political opinions, or at least listening in to exclusive conversations on sensitive topics, many observers raised concerns about the safety of those in China using the app. 

Those concerns were compounded after the CTO of tech media outlet iFanr said (in Chinese) that a Chinese company, Agora (声网), provides real-time audio technology support for Clubhouse. 

What is Agora?

  • Agora provides Real-Time Engagement Platform-as-a-Service (RTE-PaaS) technology which embeds real-time video, audio, and text.
  • Agora, founded in 2013 and listed on NASDAQ last year, is headquartered in Shanghai and Silicon Valley and has operations in seven other cities worldwide, according to its website (in Chinese). It was founded by Zhào Bīn 赵斌 who was the CTO of Joyy (欢聚时代), a video-based social media platform listed on NASDAQ.
  • Agora had 1,176 active customers as of March 2020, according to its prospectus filed with the SEC. Customers of Agora, according to its website (in Chinese), include online dating site MeetMe, Xiaomi AI speaker, Momo, a NASDAQ-listed Chinese social media application similar to Tinder, and New Oriental, an NYSE-listed education company which started its business by helping Chinese students prepare for overseas English exams such as TOEFL. 
  • Competitors of Agora, according to its prospectus, include open-source projects such as WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) and those that provide similar technology, such as Tencent, TokBox, and Twilio.

Data security with Agora, and Clubhouse:

  • “To ensure the security of the transmitted data, Agora services provide the encryption for audio and video data,” according to Agora’s website. However, the Agora servers do “cache the audio and video data for 10 seconds during the transmission and release all audio and video data immediately after the call.”
  • However, even if Agora does not present any data security risks, Clubhouse itself might: The app requires users to register with their real phone number, and the follower networks of users are entirely transparent. For any user who does speak up, recording their voice could also easily lead to identification, given the Chinese government’s substantial investment in voice-recognition technology

What comes next for Clubhouse in China

The scope of the crackdown appeared to include everything related to the app — from trading of invite codes on ecommerce sites and discussions about the blocking on various social media platforms.

  • On Weibo, #Clubhouse, the main hashtag associated with the app, has been censored along with other related ones such as “What is Clubhouse” (#Clubhouse是什么).
  • Invitations to join the exclusive service, which were previously sold on Taobao at prices ranging from 150 yuan ($23) to 300 yuan ($46) each, have also been taken down from the marketplace.
  • A Douban group named “Clubhouse,” a subreddit-like community that at its peak had nearly 14,000 members over the weekend, most of whom were frequent users of the service in mainland China, has been taken offline.

It’s worth noting that prior to the clampdown, there was pushback against Clubhouse from some of its Chinese users, who complained that the conversations on the platform were elitist, or even discriminatory toward those who were in favor of China’s policies regarding Xinjiang and its relations with Hong Kong and Taiwan.

  • In contrast to how the service was perceived by the majority of Western journalists covering China news and Chinese people based overseas — New York Times reporter Paul Mozur tweeted that the service offered “a brief glimpse at the world as it would be if the CCP allowed Chinese to speak online unfettered” — some Chinese users said that moderators of China-related rooms, who owned the “stage” and got to control who could speak, and when, were inclined to amplify voices of China critics while dismissing arguments made by CCP defenders as nothing more than propaganda. 
  • “Judging from the way they talk on the app, there are so many young users from Hong Kong and Taiwan who have this presumption about people in Mainland China that we have limited means to get information and lack the ability to tell fake news from the truth,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Nonetheless, there has also been mourning for Clubhouse on Chinese social media, with many saying that they would miss the app for being a “safe space” where they were able to discuss contentious topics candidly without concerns about censorship or retaliation. “It’s so touching to hear some speakers talk about their experiences in great detail. There are so many elephants in the room for us in Mainland China to discuss and Clubhouse is such a rare outlet to come by,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).