China blocked the audio chat app Clubhouse on Monday, ending what many of its users had seen as a rare opportunity for Chinese residents to talk about censored topics in the country.
For days after the app took off in China last week, Chinese Clubhouse users had spoken freely with one another, as well as with Chinese communities overseas. Unfettered by China’s strict information control, they talked about topics as mundane as the weather and as sensitive as China’s suppression of Muslims in its Xinjiang region.
Then, as abruptly as it had started, it was over. On Monday afternoon, Chinese users of the app began reporting their inability to use the service in China, a sign that Chinese internet authorities had caught on with the app.
The demise of app in China capped off what was a small-scale experiment with uncensored social media in the country.
Mostly, people listened.
The app had allowed China’s Han majority, including those who live overseas, to hear first-hand accounts of the ruling Communist Party’s mass detention and abuses of the country’s mostly Muslim Uighurs. In the process, it had prompted some to question the official narrative that they had believed in—that what Beijing is operating in Xinjiang is a legitimate anti-terrorism and vocational training program.
“On Clubhouse, I hear more human stories. They seem more real,” said Alex, a Han Chinese participant in a 10-hour-long chat about Xinjiang that attracted more than 4,900 listeners over the weekend. “I can relate to their fear. It is the type of fear any ordinary person could face.”
It is unclear how many of the Chinese-speaking users live in China. Alex, who spoke on condition of anonymity, works in the United States and had mostly consumed news about China on the Chinese social media site Weibo, where posts are closely monitored and censored. Like Alex, many Han Chinese in China have little idea or interest in the Chinese authorities’ treatment of ethnic minorities in the far-western region.
During the Saturday chat about Xinjiang, Chinese-speaking Uighurs and Kazakhs told stories of how their family members had disappeared into the detention program without being charged with any crime. Some said they were too scared to text their relatives on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, as Xinjiang authorities see links with foreign countries as potential ground for punishment or detention.
In response, some Han Chinese participants voiced their support for the minority groups. One woman sobbed when she talked about feeling guilty as a Han Chinese, and several asked what they could do to help.
“I was shocked. I had always thought they would never understand what we were going through or felt guilty,” said a Uighur participant in the chat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was really moving when they showed their emotions. It felt like the distance between us was not that great.”
Halmurat Harri Uyghur, an activist in Finland whose parents were detained in Xinjiang, said in a tweet that he was excited by the sympathy expressed by Chinese speakers on Clubhouse.
“Every time someone said ‘as a Han Chinese, I feel sympathetic and sorry for what Uighurs have suffered,’ I was struck,” he wrote on Twitter. “Many people have sent messages of greetings and comfort. I’m really moved.”
The exchanges seemed to affirm Clubhouse developers’ belief that, unlike tweets, voice is a more empathetic medium of expression. The potential for Clubhouse to be a big player in social media is reflected in its perceived value. Launched less than a year ago to a small group of test users, the startup reached a $1 billion valuation last month, The Information reported.
By banning the app on Monday, Beijing signaled its intention to keep a tight grip on what is open to discussion in China, although it is not at all certain that free-flowing conversations on Clubhouse would turn Chinese participants against the authorities.
During the Saturday chat on Clubhouse, some Han Chinese speakers defended China’s detention program in Xinjiang, citing Beijing’s arguments that it was necessary for combating terrorism and educating what they see as a backward Uighur population.
A Beijing native said that the hours-long conversation changed his views about the situation in Xinjiang. The man said he used to think accusations of abuse in the detention facilities were an anti-China plot pushed by Western media, but he had come to realize that innocent people had indeed been locked up.
But only a day later, the postgraduate student on America’s east coast, who declined to be named, told VICE World News that he regretted his sympathetic remarks after he heard Uighur activists calling the crackdown “genocide” in another chat room in English.
The Trump administration in January declared that China had committed “genocide” against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, a label that the current U.S. Secretary of the State Antony Blinken has endorsed.
The Chinese student said Uighurs’ use of the term made him skeptical about what they said.
“After feeling sympathetic for them yesterday, I kind of feel I was being used,” he said. “It was a lie to call it a genocide. I cannot accept it. It demonizes the Chinese government. They have gone too far.”
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