Clubhouse’s Short Life as a Free Speech Haven In China Is Over

Clubhouse’s Short Life as a Free Speech Haven In China Is Over
Photo: Odd Andersen, Getty Images

Clubhouse, the voice-only chat app that everyone will not stop talking about, appears to be muzzled in China. This morning, journalist and internet freedom advocate Michael Anti tweeted that Clubhouse is “now blocked in most cities in China.” The Chinese censorship watchdog group and workaround builder Greatfire.org told TechCrunch that the app’s API was blocked around 7 pm on Monday, Beijing time.

The US-based, invite-only app presents users with an array of interest-based “rooms” like “grownuping ” “chill vibes,” and “geopolitics” where users’ photo avatars light up when they’re speaking. It’s primarily known for celebrity appearances by people like Drake and Tiffany Haddish and specials like an audition for Hamilton tickets (presumably for when the world is open again); a drop-in by Elon Musk recently drew in the masses.

On first glance it’s kinda silly — this morning, for example, I hung out in a commiseration room for sold-out luxury bags. This weekend, though, Clubhouse became an impromptu global forum for thousands of Chinese speakers, including Uyghurs and Taiwan-based users, to freely discuss human rights abuses and censorship. Kaiser Kuo, host of the Sinica Podcast for “China-watchers,” tweeted about frank, emotional testimonies on difficult topics such as friends and family being dragged into the Xinjiang internment camps. 

The app was already inaccessible to Chinese Apple accounts and unavailable on the App Store in China. According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, users circumvented these blocks by buying Clubhouse invites on the secondary market and obtaining foreign Apple IDs. The paper predicted Clubhouse’s fate yesterday, noting that “Beijing is prone to intolerance of open discussion of issues that it deems off limits.” China has shown little tolerance for social media platforms that don’t toe the CCP line; it recently banned 105 apps — including seemingly innocuous ones like TripAdvisor — in an attempt to “clean up” the internet” this past December.

Journalist William Yang noted that one popular room was hosted by Australia-based Chinese political artist Badiucao, whose work is critical of the CCP. Badiucao told Yang that he’s concerned about the fact that Clubhouse was built using the software development kit Agora, which has headquarters in Shanghai. Agora’s founder has claimed that the company doesn’t store user data, but if it did, it could be forced to hand it over to the CCP.

Agora and Clubhouse weren’t immediately available for comment.