Friday, February 26, 2021

Chinese netizens evade censors, debate on invite-only US chat app

China’s cyber authorities have become increasingly strict in recent years, widening bans on apps, media outlets and social media sites.

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Private social audio app Clubhouse is attracting masses of new users from mainland China, where the American app remains uncensored by authorities despite flourishing discussions on human rights, national identity and other sensitive topics.

Western social media apps including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned in China, where the local internet is tightly censored to remove any content that could threaten the ruling communist party.

The Clubhouse app, launched in early 2020 at the start of the pandemic, saw explosive growth in user numbers earlier this month after Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev held a surprise discussion on the platform.

Its chat rooms are only accessible via invites from current members, and on Sunday, invites to the platform were selling for up to 400 yuan (US$70, RM283) on popular Chinese e-commerce sites.

Reuters directly listened in on several Chinese language club conversations where thousands of users listened to wide-ranging audio discussions exploring contentious topics including Xinjiang detention camps, Taiwan independence and Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

China’s cyber authorities have become increasingly strict in recent years, widening bans on apps, media outlets and social media sites.

While Clubhouse remains uncensored, it is only available on iOS devices and is unavailable in the local Apple app store, both major barriers for its widespread use in China although mainland Chinese users can access the app by modifying the location of their app store.

It’s unclear why the app remains unblocked in China, though some foreign social sites with small Chinese followings manage to operate under the radar of censors.

In one club chat centred on Hong Kong politics, activists, journalists and artists discussed former US president Trump and his support base in the former British colony.

Another popular Chinese language club on the site on Saturday involved a rare open exchange between netizens in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong over heightened political tensions in the region.

“I don’t know how long this environment can last”, said one user in a Weibo post that was liked over 65,000 times. “But I will definitely remember this moment in Internet history.”

“Clubhouse is a space for casual, drop-in audio conversations with friends and other interesting people around the world,” says the Clubhouse site. “Go online anytime to chat with the people you follow, or hop in as a listener and hear what others are talking about.”

The audio-based social network features no pictures or videos, just public and private conversation rooms. Users have only profile pictures and followers. Chats are not recorded but users get around this by livestreaming conversations on other platforms, including YouTube, reports the New York Post.

Only 5,000 users are technically supposed to be in each conversation. “General rudeness” is allowed, but hate speech, sexism and abuse are not, and a spokeswoman for the app told Reuters they’ve already had to ban some users.

In December, Clubhouse was valued at nearly US$100 million. By the end of January, the valuation hit US$1 billion.

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