Clubhouse creates ‘once-in a lifetime’ chance to breach China’s Great Firewall. But when will it be banned?

February 8, 2021, 10:59 AM UTC

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Over the weekend, Clubhouse, Silicon Valley’s hottest new social media startup that connects users in audio-only chatrooms, exploded with activity from users in mainland China, who participated in wide-ranging and open discussions on touchy topics like the Hong Kong protests, the concentration camps in Xinjiang, and other human rights issues that are usually off-limits in China’s censored Internet environment.

Freewheeling conversations on such topics are generally banned on China’s Internet by the country’s Great Firewall, the government’s censorship apparatus that blocks some foreign websites and restricts China’s homegrown social media platforms when Beijing sees fit.

That arguably makes Clubhouse—for the moment, at least—the world’s only online platform that fosters open discussions between users in China and the rest of the world. 

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of opportunity to hear these open and frank conversations that are taking place,” says Fergus Ryan, a Chinese Internet analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

But just as the app’s breakout popularity over the weekend attracted the interest of Chinese users and international journalists, it also attracted the attention of Beijing. Now the question among China experts and Chinese Clubhouse users has become when—not if—China’s government will ban the platform. 

Why isn’t it blocked yet?

Technically, Clubhouse doesn’t operate in China. The app, which is only available on Apple’s iOS, isn’t available on the Chinese App Store. Apple removed Clubhouse from the Chinese App Store in October last year. It’s unclear whether Apple or the app’s developers made that decision. Apple didn’t respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

But mainland Chinese users are still able to access and download Clubhouse “if they happen to have a non-Chinese account with Apple,” says Todd Kuhns, marketing manager at AppInChina—a Beijing-based advisory that helps foreign companies launch apps in China.

“On your device, you can simply log out of your Chinese account and log in with your foreign account to get access to the foreign Apple App Store to download apps and games. Many mainland Chinese do this,” Kuhns says. 

Even though Clubhouse doesn’t officially operate in China, Beijing could still cut access to the app by blocking Internet service providers from connecting to the app’s servers—a tool Beijing frequently reaches for as its expands its Great Firewall. Blocking access to servers is how the government prevents Chinese Internet users from gaining access to foreign social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. The fact that Beijing hasn’t done the same for Clubhouse could simply mean that authorities don’t see it as a risk yet.

“If small pockets of conversation involving mainland Chinese seem to flourish for a time, even on sensitive issues, it will be because the app does not reach the general public, and so does not constitute an immediate threat to the regime and its goal of leading public opinion,” says David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, a research program affiliated with the University of Hong Kong.

Clubhouse’s user base in China likely represents a tiny fraction of China’s 1 billion Internet users. Because the app is only available on Apple iOS—and even then only to users with foreign Apple IDs—its reach is limited in mainland China, where Android is the dominant mobile operating system. What’s more, most of the content on Clubhouse is in English, meaning it will have limited mass appeal to China’s population. According to Ryan, participants in Clubhouse “rooms” in mainland China are also likely more tech-savvy and liberally minded than China’s average Internet user.

Listening in

However, it’s likely that Chinese censors are still listening in. 

On Monday, the state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times posted an article about Chinese users on Clubhouse, suggesting that the Chinese government is at least aware that the sensitive conversations are taking place. In the chatrooms, Ryan says, some users are already warning people in China to censor themselves, believing that Chinese authorities are surveilling discussion groups. 

“It probably makes more sense for [Chinese censors] to be in there listening, in the app, and monitoring conversations to try and identify people who are crossing these political red lines,” says Ryan. “Those people can be identified, and consequences will no doubt be meted out.”

Update: As of roughly 8 p.m. Monday, Beijing time, multiple news outlets reported that Clubhouse is now inaccessible from China.

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