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China blocks Clubhouse, the ‘only by invitation’ app loved by Elon Musk: Here is all you need to know

This is not the first time China has bullied an app into making changes to allow censorship as per Chinese laws. In late 2019, Zoom, a popular video and teleconference service, was blocked by the Chinese authorities.

China loves to block social media apps, especially those that pose any ‘threat’ to its CCP-led government. The latest victim of China’s over-censorship is the famous social media app Clubhouse. The Chinese authorities blocked access to the app on February 8. With the termination of access to the app, yet another rare venue for the Chinese citizens have closed down where they could freely discuss politically sensitive subjects.

Users receive an error while accessing the app

Clubhouse works on virtual audio chatrooms. Shortly before the government-imposed restrictions on the app, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece Global Times had criticized political discussions on the app for being one-sided and suppressing pro-Beijing voices. Soon after, the app was blocked.

The users started getting error messages when they tried to access the app from China. The statement read, “An SSL error has occurred and a secure connection to the server cannot be made.” However, the app was still accessible via virtual private networks or VPNs that Chinese citizens often use to access blocked services like Twitter and Facebook.

The Elon Musk impact

The Clubhouse was a relative niche app until last month. Recently, Tesla founder Elon Musk and Vlad Tenev, co-founder of Robinhood, the brokerage app, caught up in a frenzy for GameStop shares. It went viral, causing a surge in the user base of the social media app. Notably, it can be accessed using the iPhone only. Musk also tweeted about the app and shared a link to his room.

A new platform to discuss sensitive issues freely

After President Xi Jinping took over power in 2012, several social media platforms were thrown on the other side of China’s “great firewall.” Everything that gave a platform to talk against the government was blocked. The government’s censorship gave rise to China’s in-house social media apps like Weibo, We Chat and others.

Relatively new apps like Clubhouse are often not on China’s radar as they do not offer a larger platform to the Chinese users. However, Musk’s presence and recent uproar about the app made Chinese users realize that they can use the app to discuss sensitive topics free of government censorship.

Being an ‘invitation only’ app, the conversations on Clubhouse were so much ‘in demand’ that those who can hear them on popular Chinese chatrooms often summarise them live on Twitter for those who do not have the invite for the app.

The demand for an invite to Clubhouse spiked to a level that it was being sold for as high as Rmb500 ($78) during the weekend. Though the app’s access was limited to iPhone users, a large number of China-based users start to appear on Clubhouse that was enough to raise the alarm for the Chinese authorities. As soon as the government blocked access on Monday, access to free-for-all discussion topics that ranged from detention of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang to Taiwan was blocked for all Chinese users.

Chinese users want internet freedom

The sudden surge of Chinese interest in the app shows how desperate Chinese people are to find a way to discuss sensitive issues. The censorship in China has made it possible for the Chinese government to mull any voice raised against it. The same censorship has allowed the government to block access to international investigators to find information about the origin of the Covid-19 virus.

Melissa Chan, a Berlin-based Chinese journalist, was part of one such Chinese groups on Clubhouse. She shared her ordeal of being in such a group. In a long thread, she said that she was in a Taiwanese-run room in Clubhouse that was hosting over 4,000 Mandarin speakers. They were talking about everything from surveillance to friends who’ve left re-education camps. 

When one Chinese user denied the existence of Uyghurs’ detention camps, she explained how a user living outside China responded. She said, “A painful Clubhouse moment as one Chinese speaker denies the existence of detention camps in Xinjiang, while Uyghurs (most or all overseas…?) in the room listen. One Uyghur woman overseas responds, and you can hear her voice shaking.”

This is not the first time China has bullied an app into making changes to allow censorship as per Chinese laws. In late 2019, Zoom, a popular video and teleconference service, was blocked by the Chinese authorities. It was unblocked only after Zoom agreed to a secret “rectification plan” with Chinese authorities and provided them access to calls about sensitive subjects and information about the participants in such discussions.

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