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China said goodbye to Clubhouse 👋. Interview with Melissa Chan

Beijing banned the app because it fueled sensitive discussions, triggering censorship, but the real-time audio social platform raises concern for privacy, too

You’re certainly familiar with the waving hand emoji 👋, commonly used to say “hello” or “goodbye”. On the most widespread Chinese instant messaging platform, WeChat, 👋 is often used to convey a sense of “not being friends anymore”. Well, that’s exactly what happened in China to the hottest social network of these weeks — Clubhouse.

At the beginning of February, the drop-in audio chat app fueled some rare and intense discussions among Mandarin-speaking users in mainland China, for once directly connected with people in Hong Kong, in Taiwan, and even with the Uyghur diaspora. When the debate became impossible to contain or to manage, Beijing’s censorship blocked Clubhouse in China. This happened Monday, February 8, 2021.

Melissa Chan, journalist at the Vancouver-based Global Reporting Center and expert of China internal and global policy, was one of the witnesses of what happened on that platform in the few days before it was hard banned.

When it comes to Clubhouse, we’re at a crossroad with censorship and privacy issues. According to a report published by the Stanford Internet Observatory (Sio), Clubhouse has so far transmitted the numbers of its users’ unique ids and chat room ids in plain text, offering to Agora, its Shanghai-based backend infrastructure, full access to the metadata of the conversations. The researchers found that the audio tracks and the IDs of the users of the rooms studied were transmitted without encryption to China.

RH1: Melissa, in the last few days there’s a social media that has drawn all the attention all over the world: we’re talking about Clubhouse. So, first of all, tell us: have you tried it?

MC: Yes, I have tried it. I’ve been on it since January, so I’m also a new user. 

RH1: Let’s add some context: Clubhouse is an audio-only, invite-only, and iOS-only social media. This could sound very exclusive, but it made quite an impact in a few days, especially because one of the biggest influencers on Earth, Elon Musk, decided to join and promote it. But this is not the story we want to discuss with you. We want to see what happened in China. We know that Clubhouse has already been banned, but I want to start from the beginning: how did it get there, and when the success erupted?

once you had those three big groups, mainland Chinese, Hongkongers, and Taiwanese, things got very interesting

MC: I want to also add another thing that’s important about Clubhouse: it’s real-time audio. In other words, the conversations happen in real-time, and they are not recorded and saved so that people can watch them later. And that’s going to be something really important in terms of factoring into why these conversations in the Chinese-speaking world became big.
In terms of your other question about how it got big in Asia, let me back up a little bit and say that Clubhouse is a startup that was around since the middle of last year. And as a Silicon Valley-based app the early users were friends of the co-founders, who spoke a lot about tech and investments and Bitcoin, all these topics, none of them related to human rights, none of them related to the intense conversations that we have seen in the Chinese-speaking world. What I started noticing was that the app started expanding its invites. In other words, it was looking to expand its user base in January, and very quickly you had users in Hong Kong go online, and that was very interesting for me. Most people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, and I was in the Cantonese chat rooms, listening in on conversations, and then a day later we started seeing people from Taiwan joining the Clubhouse app. And then suddenly we had an influx of mainland Chinese users. Some of these people from mainland China were outside of China, but others were from inside the country. And once you had those three big groups, mainland Chinese, Hongkongers, and Taiwanese, things got very interesting. They started engaging with each other, and they engaged in rooms and spoke what I call the lingua franca, which is Mandarin. And things got even more interesting when Uyghurs started using Clubhouse, especially the activists overseas who are constantly looking at ways of spreading their message of advocating, and the conversations just got incredibly intense, incredibly intimate. We had this unusual situation of Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, all in a single digital space. You don’t get that even in real life, which is why I think it’s significant, because as you had mentioned, Marco, it’s exclusive, it’s élite. How many Chinese were going online in the grand scheme of things? Just a few thousands out of 1.4 billion people. How important is Clubhouse in all of this? I think that in terms of numbers and representation, it perhaps is not important. But in terms of the particular mix of the rooms and the content of the conversations and what was being shared, that’s why this became a story. 

RH1: Three topics emerged as the most sensitive in the Mandarin-speaking sphere — the Xinjiang situation, the challenges of Hong Kong, the Taiwan controversy. What’s the difference between what happened on Clubhouse and what happens on the other platforms that have been created and disappeared in the years? 

There’s an intimacy to the voice so that when you hear conversations on the radio it feels much more personal and private

MC: I think the difference is the particular aspect of audio. There’s an intimacy to the voice so that when you hear conversations on the radio it feels much more personal and private. On the other hand, radio is not video: with video, you can see each other, and there’s a level of publicity with that, you can hide behind your voice on an app where no one can see your facial expression. So is this combination of privacy and intimacy on Clubhouse that I think allowed people who spoke Mandarin to come together in a room and talk about things that they normally wouldn’t talk about. For example, Taiwan and China. A lot of Taiwanese travel to China, there’s a lot of business done between Taiwan and China, so you would think that a lot of conversations would have already taken place about politics, democracy, independence. But the reality is if you’re Taiwanese and you go to China and you do your business and you have your business meetings and maybe you have some friends, you’ll meet up and have dinner and you’ll talk about things. But how often do you really talk about “the third rail topics”, the really touchy topics? It’s unlikely you would do so unless maybe you after a few drinks or something. So what I think happened on Clubhouse is that people went from zero to 60 miles an hour very fast, and started talking about the conversations that you really don’t have unless you really get to know somebody usually. And I think that’s what made it particularly interesting. And the other thing is, of course, that in China it’s become more and more difficult to get a sense of what people behind the so-called “Great Firewall” think and say, their own social media ecosystem, which is separated from the ecosystems in Europe and also in the United States, gets censored constantly. It’s very nationalistic now. There used to be a time on China’s version of Twitter, called Weibo, where people would be able to say some things, and maybe their comments would eventually be censored, but it would be up there online for long enough for other people in China to see and to debate about it. And that space ever since, the leadership of Xi Jinping has gotten tighter and tighter. It is a very significant closing of space. So there’s been more interest in what Chinese people think because we have had less access to it, even with the great foreign reporters in China going out interviewing people. It’s this unfiltered moment where people got together in a room, had very intense conversations, and let me just give you an example of some of the intensity. You had Han Chinese, some of whom, many of them perhaps, get access to international media reports, especially the mainland Chinese who work overseas. And there was one woman who apologized to the Uyghurs listening in the room, saying that she felt so ashamed and that she was convinced that Han Chinese, that is the ethnic majority in China, were standing on the wrong side of history. That’s exactly what she said when it comes to the Xinjiang detention camps, and you had Uyghurs listening to this, most of the Uyghurs were overseas, but what was stunning about Clubhouse was that for a few days there were Uyghurs in Xinjiang who were on the app as well, not a lot, we’ll never know how many, but that was also very key because it has been so difficult to report from that region. And these people in Xinjiang, whether they were Han Chinese or Uyghur to be frank, were able to confirm some of the things that we know from reporting. It’s not as if we don’t trust the fantastic reporting of the journalists, but it is always interesting to get confirmation and alignment from people who are living in that region saying “Yes, there are checkpoints”. “Yes, I have friends who went to reeducation camps and came out”, or “Yes, they were forced to learn Mandarin”. “Yes, they were given ideological training”. “Yes, they were told to love the Communist Party”. “Yes, they were told to love Xi Jinping” and all of that. And to hear it from somebody who was there, right that moment, I think, has been very powerful for people to listen to. And not just for the Uyghurs who were overseas, but for outsiders who understand Mandarin, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, all of that. 

RH1: Can you give us two or three examples of topics that really struck you? 

I think that most important are the most recent events impacting people today. And that is Xinjiang, the Hong Kong protests, and Taiwan as an independent, democratic state. 

MC: Well, one of the major topics, of course, is what I’ve mentioned, on Xinjiang and the detention camps there. And there were people in the room who had never heard about it. There were people who had heard about these camps in China, but they were skeptical about it. And those were intense conversations. Imagine if I was listening and there was a Han Chinese sort of dismissing the detention camps as a plot of Western media. And the person even said, “How could you guys do this? All of you in this room are just awful, awful people for perpetuating lies against our country”. And you had Uyghurs who have family members who had disappeared listening to this denial. So, imagine that intensity! There’s also been a very interesting engagement between those in mainland China and people in Hong Kong, discussing the protests and what happened. There was a genuine curiosity I sensed from people in mainland China. They wanted to know that they had heard this piece of news. Was it true, or like, “this is my understanding of what happened in Hong Kong. Is that true?” And what really underscored for me, in all these conversations is asymmetric information between those who are outside of the Great Firewall and those behind. And the third interesting topic was also Taiwan. And here you had a lot of fascinating conversations about Taiwan, a mainland Chinese asking about the different political parties, asking about the political environment, asking about how the democratic system works and where there were problems with the democratic system, and Taiwanese explaining their point of view and their position. There were, of course, other hot button issues, there was a room on the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, that was inevitable. But I think that most important are the most recent events impacting people today. And that is Xinjiang, the Hong Kong protests, and Taiwan as an independent, democratic state. 

RH1: One of the defining tools of propaganda and counter-propaganda in the last 10 years is trolling. So what happened on those chats? Has been there trolls?

MC: Yeah. There were definitely people who would start shouting in the room, like pro-independent Taiwanese or pro-democratic Hong Kongers. And then there were also Chinese nationalists who would shout occasionally in the room and it would upset everyone in the room, and then everyone would have to figure out who shouted and expel them from the room. There were moderators who can control the conversation, but I would say that generally speaking, the conversations were very significant for the tone of mutual respect and engagement. Of course, there were people who denied genocide or detention camps and that was very hurtful. On the other hand, I would say that over hours of listening and binging on all of this over the last few days, most people were very, very respectful. Everyone had his turn. It was like open mic nights, where everyone had their turn to go on stage, to say a few words for a few minutes, and then the next person would speak. And sometimes, the conversations would just sort of move from hour to hour, and some of these rooms lasted for days, some of the rooms lasted for over 100 hours, as the moderator would get tired, they would hand on the responsibilities to somebody else, and these rooms would continue to exist. Sometimes these rooms would have thousands of people, sometimes would be very intimate and just have 20 or 30 people. But there were a lot of these rooms and you could pop between a room talking about Xinjiang, you would go to a room talking about Hong Kong, you go to room where people in Hong Kong were speaking in Cantonese only, you could go to a Mandarin-speaking room. It was very fascinating. 

RH1: Do you think what happened is more interesting for the Chinese or for the people who try to understand what the Chinese think?

MC: I think that’s a great question. If you ask somebody in China right now “Hey, do you know about Clubhouse?” They would most likely say “I’ve never heard of this app”, even in a big city like Shanghai or something. So the question is, does Clubhouse matter if most people in China haven’t heard about it and so few people used it? I think that the app was probably more for those who are outside China and are curious about what people think inside China. I think it’s been very important for them to hear these voices. It’s so few voices, it’s a few thousands of voices, but it’s better than zero. A Chinese in China said: “This is just a crack in the wall, but it was helpful” and it was needed I think for a long time, there hasn’t been this kind of engagement, and I think that China decided to finally move on the ban. Everyone knew that it was going to happen, it was just a question of when, and I think that once these rooms really started picking up momentum, most likely if you have a room with thousands of Mandarin speakers, one of them will be, for example, a Communist Party member. In fact, I was in a room where somebody identified themselves as a Communist Party member and they had questions for all the other participants. But there were very likely Communist Party members who are not on Clubhouse just to use it casually but also to take notes. At some point, word got up to higher levels that this thing was happening and somebody decided to pull the plug. 

RH1: And then we come to the crackdown by the Beijing government. But the first question is: has Clubhouse ever been available on the App Store in China?

MC: Clubhouse has never been available on the App Store in China, so what people in China were starting to do was that they would get on their iPhone and switch their store location from China to another country, and then they would then download the app. It’s not clear, and no one has been able to get an answer from Clubhouse, whether this was a choice from the company or whether there was a ban of Clubhouse already that we did not know about. But suffice to say that it was fairly easy for someone from China who really wanted to get on Clubhouse to download the app and then register and become a user. What happened on Monday, February 8th is that China moved their soft ban to a hard ban, which meant that you can’t download the app even if you switch stores. And that it is just much more difficult, even if you have a circumnavigation tool like a Virtual Private Network, a VPN. As things stand even as I checked a few hours ago, there are still users from China on the app, but they were mostly those who managed to join and download the app before the ban, and it’s questionable what will happen if they don’t update the app because there are regular updates to apps. So maybe, in the long run, that group will also start diminishing. 

RH1: What’s the official reason it’s been shut down? 

MC: We don’t know, like a lot of authoritarians States they don’t tell you the reason, they just do it, and then everyone is left not sure. I was actually on Clubhouse when the news broke that there were people who were in China struggling to get on the app and that it looked as if there was a ban. People were confirming with each other and there was absolute panic in the rooms. It was rather dramatic. It was like watching breaking news happen in a digital space. And it was even to a point where a moderator said, “maybe everyone in China who wants to speak should jump the line because maybe they won’t be able to speak soon”. It was quite dramatic. And then there were some Chinese who suddenly became very worried about being on the app and whether they should delete the app and whether they would get in trouble. And other people trying to calm users down and say “there are thousands and thousands of people who spoke in the last few days, surely the Chinese State will not go after you. You are mostly listening. You will be fine. They’ll probably go after the most prominent people, who’s already been in trouble with the Chinese State before, so they knew what they were doing”. So you were having these kinds of calculated decisions. And, of course, everyone at that time talking also knew that there had to be people in the room who were essentially snitches. 

RH1: On the same day the Clubhouse application has been shut down in China, the Italian data protection regulator sent a letter to Alpha Exploration, the owner of Clubhouse, asking them to clarify how the app complies with Gdpr, where the data is stored, and how it’s used. Without active cooperation, Clubhouse could be shut down in many European countries, too. Let’s remember that the real gold for these companies is to use audio tracks for machine learning.

there appears to be the possibility that some things can fall under the jurisdiction of Chinese law, and Chinese law is very expansive in terms of what the government can ask private companies in terms of data

MC: I’m so glad you brought that up because many users in the Mandarin-speaking rooms were concerned about privacy and what Clubhouse metadata was being picked up, what was encrypted and what was not. So people were aware that this was a problem. Clubhouse asks to get access to your address book on your phone when you start the app, I said no and that prevents me from using some features on Clubhouse, but most people just go ahead and say yes, because that’s the way people act. The Clubhouse co-founder has said that the audio is not saved, but that there is a “temporary buffer”, which to me sounds like a recording that maybe you record and then you delete in 24 hours, but there’s still a recording, and that’s a huge problem. And the reason why they decided to do that is that if something happens in the room that is criminal or people feel like violates the terms, especially racist remarks, or bullying, people in the room can complain to Clubhouse. Clubhouse, they say, needs to be able to review what happened in the room in order to make a determination about deleting accounts and kicking people off the app.
The other thing is that some of the back-end technology for the audio is apparently provided by a Chinese company called Agora, with offices in the United States and in China. But according to the Securities and Exchange Commission filing to the United States government by Agora, there appears to be the possibility that some things can fall under the jurisdiction of Chinese law, and Chinese law is very expansive in terms of what the government can ask private companies in terms of data. So there is a lot of good reasons for the Italian government to be asking these questions of Clubhouse, and it’s interesting to hear that they have done so. 

RH1: Generally, when the Chinese government bans some Western apps, let’s say Twitter or Facebook, there is some local company that produces some alternative app that becomes mainstream, and sometimes it becomes more widespread and powerful than the Western ones. Let’s consider Weibo, let’s think of WeChat in comparison with Whatsapp. Do you think they have already something like Clubhouse in their pockets in China?

MC: There are already stories about Chinese startups and companies and investors working on a Clubhouse replica. But there are questions even within those in China and tech, wondering how realistic some app equivalent in China would be in terms of success. The first problem is the real-time audio: this is a State that wants to censor what people say, so if it’s real-time audio, then it can evade the censors in a way I don’t think the Chinese government is comfortable with. Although it’s tantalizing to think about in terms of how could an alternative Clubhouse Chinese Copy work. If, you know, they have the machine learning and AI tools, this could be a demonstration of how good Chinese AI and machine learning is, because if they can monitor real-time audio, then that’s a huge step forward for authoritarian technology. So I think this remains to be seen, but I think for sure that it’s definitely happening, it’s just a question of whether the state will come in and stop it or whether they think they have the toolkit, the technological toolkit to manage it. 

RH1: What about the story about people in China paying to be invited on Clubhouse? Is it true? Did this happen because they wanted to participate to some sensitive mingling topic or because of business reasons? 

MC: I think it’s a fear of missing out. I think a lot of people heard that this was a hot app, and people wanted to get on it to see what was happening on Clubhouse. And I think that once you get on Clubhouse, then the user individually might be drawn to business topics and rooms versus more sensitive topics. But there were definitely sales of invites. Because of the way the invites work actually it’s possible to have infinite invites. If you think about it, each user gets two invites, so you can sell one invite and then invite yourself to create a new account and keep replicating that. So people were doing that, and I saw evidence of that. At first, I thought these were trolls. I found an account and I kept following the chain: the uniqueness of Clubhouse is that it shows who invited you, so you can always see these social connections. That’s another privacy issue for people in China by the way, but if you can see who invited you, you could go back, and there was a Chinese speaker who I realized when I saw who invited him or her, had a very weird account name. And then I kept going back to looking at who invited the previous person, who invited the previous person, and you keep going back, there were all these basically funny accounts that were clearly just random digits and names and stuff like that. And I realized something funny was going on, and then someone explained to me these sales. So that’s what was happening: ff somebody would sell an invite and then they create an account because they don’t want to spend time thinking up a name, they just hype random letters on the laptop and get approved for a new invite. So it’s really fascinating that there were people willing to spend. If you’re in China and you want to hear sensitive topics, and you have a little bit of money, 70 USD is not that much money for you to have access for a week or two, knowing that it would eventually be banned. 

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