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A Brief but Marvelous Moment of Free Expression in China

Beijing Blocks Clubhouse App to Stop ‘Political’ Conversations

Logos of social media platforms including Clubhouse, center, are seen on an iPhone 12. © 2021 Christoph Dernbach/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

On Monday night, Clubhouse, the red-hot app where people can create chatrooms that disappear after use, became inaccessible in China, presumably blocked by the authorities. Many had expected this to happen, but some were still surprised by how fast the government acted.

Over the previous days, thousands and maybe more users in mainland China flocked to the app, engaging in discussions with users from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Uyghur diaspora. They spoke about issues that are prohibited in China, such as the “political education” camps in Xinjiang, state surveillance, China-Taiwan relations, and the Hong Kong protests. People from all sides of the political spectrum shared their experiences and learned the perspectives of others. In a chatroom discussing the situation in Xinjiang, Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnicity, shared what they were taught in school about Xinjiang and their experiences visiting the region, while Uyghurs told — with great pain and magnanimity — the stories of their family members who are currently arbitrarily detained in the camps.

There were still many disagreements, and the gap in understanding can be hard to bridge given the decades that the government has stringently repressed information in mainland China. But people on Clubhouse appeared to truly try and put themselves in the shoes of others. It was wonderful to see a unifying internet in which Chinese-speakers from around the world communicated with each other in one shared online space.

It is also a testament to the extent people in China — if given a chance — want to communicate. In a chatroom on Xinjiang, a Han Chinese expressed how moved she had been by the hours-long discussion. A participant in a room discussing feminism tweeted, “Now [I’m] in a meeting full of women from Two Coastals and Three Regions [meaning the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau,] gender identity has completely transcended political identity, calling each other sisters, great rapport.”

Now that Clubhouse is blocked, we are back to parallel internet universes. It will add insult to injury if Chinese authorities go after those in China who entered the chatrooms, asked questions, and gave their opinions.

Will the Chinese Communist Party ever learn that allowing Chinese people to communicate freely with the rest of the world will be to China’s benefit?

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