China’s Great Firewall crushes Clubhouse and ‘free speech’ debate

The US app has been blocked by Chinese censors after chatrooms discussed highly-sensitive issues

China is notorious for clamping down on free speech. 

Earlier this week, the social media site Clubhouse became the latest victim for breaching the Great Firewall.

The audio app was eventually blocked by Chinese censors after its chatrooms hummed with discussions on highly-sensitive issues such as Xinjiang detention camps, Taiwan independence and Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

New Chinese users poured on to Clubhouse to give a brief glimpse of what a free Chinese internet might look like before Beijing pulled the plug.

“Clubhouse is a very good communication platform. Too bad it is unlikely to have a bright future in China,” Gao Ming, the managing director at public relations firm Ruder Finn in Shanghai and a veteran China internet watcher, told the Financial Times.

The facts:

  • Clubhouse was launched in 2020 in the United States and has seen explosive growth.
  • It really took off after Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev held a surprise discussion on the platform.
  • Clubhouse is only accessible by invitation from members only.
  • Last weekend, Chinese-language chat rooms started to spring up on the app with guests talking about politically-banned issues.
  • On Monday, Clubhouse users in mainland China reported that they could not access the site.
  • A day later, the hashtag “Clubhouse” was also censored on Weibo, the Twitter-like Chinese social media platform with more than 450 million monthly users.

What was said: “I don’t think these topics should be off-limits. The fact that our chats can so quickly switch to these topics means that we should talk about them. They are relevant to every one of us. It also means that we’ve been holding our tongues for way too long,” Jimmy Tan, who lives in Guangzhou and opened a Clubhouse chat room with his friend in Taiwan, wrote on social media on Saturday.

Reaction to the news: “Unlike some media reports describing [Clubhouse] as a ‘free speech heaven,’ many Chinese mainland users said political discussions are often one-sided and pro-China voices can be suppressed,” Global Times, the Chinese state-run nationalistic tabloid newspaper, stated.

China Factor comment: There is a hunger in China for uncensored debate amid the stodgy offerings served up by China’s state-controlled media such as the People’s Daily, Global Times and China Daily. If that is not enough, CCTV and CGTN pump out wall-to-wall coverage pushing the Communist Party line while burnishing President Xi Jinping’s image. Until it was closed down, Clubhouse was like a breath of fresh air in a stale media atmosphere.