The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Clubhouse (briefly) exposed China’s fear society

Apple's App Store page for Clubhouse on a smartphone screen in Beijing on Tuesday. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Soviet dissident and gulag survivor Natan Sharansky crafted a test that allows anyone to quickly determine whether or not they are living in a free society or a fear society. He called it the “town square test.” If you are able go into your local town square and speak freely against the government without fear of arrest or physical harm, you are living in a free society. If not, you are not free.

For the past few weeks, the social networking app Clubhouse gave thousands of mainland Chinese citizens the opportunity to put their government to this test. Tragically, if not surprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party failed. On Monday, authorities moved to block the app and tried to erase all traces of its existence from the Chinese Internet. Even more troubling, those Chinese citizens who dared to take Sharansky’s freedom test could now be in real danger of government retaliation.

Clubhouse, the audio-only group chat application for iPhones, began last year as a networking space for Silicon Valley types but quickly expanded into the entertainment, politics and even international spheres. Through a mix of celebrity cameos and semi-exclusivity, the invite-only platform offered a relatively congenial and thoughtful alternative to the chaos and bile that pervade Twitter and Facebook. Over the past eight months, I’ve popped in and out of rooms that hosted discussions on everything from mindfulness to haute horology to the United Nations. There’s something about hearing one another’s voices and being forced to listen (rather than speak) that makes the experience special.

Thousands of Chinese citizens from all over got to hear each other (literally) over the past few weeks for the very first time. They joined chat rooms about music, movies and culture, but the most popular by far were those that discussed topics the CCP deems sensitive issues, such as Uighur atrocities, the Hong Kong crackdown and Taiwan. Exiled leaders of the Tiananmen Square student movement and dissidents like Ai Weiwei spoke directly to Chinese citizens. Uighurs and Hong Kongers and Han Chinese conversed honestly and for the most part respectfully about difficult topics.

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A 22-year-old Chinese college student, whose name I am withholding to prevent retaliation, said the app had allowed her to learn about events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang she simply had never heard of before. The voices from outside had opened her mind to the reality of what her government was capable of.

“We live in this world that the government creates for us,” she said. “I wouldn’t say we are brainwashed; I would say we believe our government doesn’t do things like this.”

On Monday, the CCP censors had had enough. They blocked phones in mainland China from downloading or directly accessing the app, and it disappeared from the Chinese app store. All references to Clubhouse were being erased from other Chinese social websites like Weibo. In the Clubhouse rooms, Chinese users who were still logged on panicked. Some cried. Many scrambled to determine if they were going to be called by local police and “asked to come by for tea,” which is when you know you are in trouble. Was their data safe? Had their conversations been recorded? The answers that came back were not reassuring.

Moreover, some American users on Clubhouse were starting to self-censor. In one Clubhouse room Tuesday, the moderators tried to enforce a “no politics” rule, meaning there could be no criticism of the Chinese government. I told the room’s audience this chilling effect was exactly the goal of the Chinese ban. The CCP is not only trying to silence Chinese citizens. The moderators didn’t want to hear it.

In a more open Clubhouse room Tuesday, technical experts raised real questions about whether Chinese users are now vulnerable. The conversations aren’t encrypted, they noted, and are all routed through servers managed by a Shanghai-based company called Zenlayer, in their Los Angeles office. Clubhouse is built on technology developed by the Chinese company Agora. Zenlayer and Agora could be forced to hand over data to the Chinese government, according to China’s national security laws.

The app collects tons of personal information on its users. Clubhouse’s founders admit they temporarily store the conversations for quality control but only for short periods of time. Chinese users worried that even if they hid their names, their real phone numbers were registered to the app. The app can access your phone contacts and sometimes your other social media connections. Even if all that were protected, the CCP is not above using voice recognition to target and persecute critics.

“Be careful if you use the platform to voice your opinions if they are critical about China,” said one Chinese user, whose name I won’t publish. “I came to Clubhouse to talk freely about things I care about, but I guess this is something the Chinese Communist Party does not agree to.”

There were Chinese citizens in the rooms that support their government. They said the government was just trying to maintain stability or protect against the easy spread of damaging rumors. They speculated that China’s own competitors to Clubhouse wanted the U.S. app out of their market for commercial reasons. They wanted Western listeners to know China was not the caricature that Western media often portrays.

Meanwhile, Clubhouse has quickly become a haven for activists fighting other authoritarian regimes. In Turkey, thousands of students, journalists and politicians have flocked to Clubhouse to avoid harsh government press censorship. Are they also all putting themselves at risk for a few weeks of breathing the fresh air of freedom?

Clubhouse, like other large tech platforms, will now have to decide whether it will be an oasis of freedom or a tool of oppression — a place for autocrats to easily find and punish their critics. Personally, I believe Clubhouse has a responsibility to do its best to protect its users living in fear-dominated societies. Meanwhile, in our society, we can’t pawn off to the tech companies the work of defending free speech and the universality of human rights.

The U.S. government should make tearing down China’s Great Firewall a key plank of U.S. policy toward China and then devote the attention and resources needed to get it done. Clubhouse gave Chinese citizens a few weeks of free speech. Those of us living in free societies have a responsibility to make that permanent.

“This indifference in Western society has enabled China to do what they want, because there’s no real consequence,” said the exiled Chinese artist and dissident known as Badiucao, in one of the rooms. “It’s not just about China; it’s about this whole world.”

Read more:

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The Post’s View: The record of Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang just got a lot worse

Marco Rubio: China is exploiting U.S. capital markets and workers. Here’s what Biden should do.

John R. Bolton: Trump didn’t think, or act, strategically about China. Biden needs to do both

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