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From WeChat to Clubhouse: The Chinese diaspora’s quest for free speech online

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

Originally published at Routed Magazine on 14 July, 2021.

With over 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide, the Chinese app WeChat is an all-in-one platform that combines the functions of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Uber, and Apple Pay into a digital ecosystem in which users can lead their entire digital lives. This powerful app is not only popular domestically, but also internationally, with an estimated 100 million to 200 million international users.

One reason for its popularity within China is that the Chinese government restricts access to other social media platforms, including Facebook, as well as to many other areas of the internet, which has left many with little choice but to use WeChat. WeChat content is also subject to heavy censorship and surveillance by the Chinese government. Additionally, due to the centrality of WeChat within China, the Chinese diaspora also has little choice but to use the app to connect with friends and relatives in the country, exposing them to the state’s machinery of surveillance, despite not being physically present in China.

Last February, the emergence of the audio app Clubhouse afforded the Chinese community a brief period where real-time censor-free discussions were possible, before the app was banned by the Chinese government. The app’s characteristics – no public record of audio messages, instant response, and conversations conducted in an orderly fashion – enabled overseas Chinese to directly communicate with people from places like Taiwan and Tibet, speak freely about current affairs and share stories that they might refrain from sharing on WeChat for fear of being monitored. At its peak, some chatrooms were filled with thousands of Mandarin speakers from Canada, the United States, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other places day and night with debates going on about who China belongs to, who qualifies as Chinese and non-Chinese, and issues surrounding China’s vaccine diplomacy and economic development.

Not all conversations were political, however. At times, immigrants from mainland China shared their process of integration in a foreign country, and people from Taiwan reminisced about hearing their grandparents’ stories of growing up in mainland China and fighting the Chinese Civil War. Clubhouse served as a platform for knowledge transfer to take place from the bottom up and shift people’s views in a constructive way. The app also created a sense of home for the Chinese diaspora, giving them a way to connect with their peers and reconnect with their Chinese heritage. This was particularly significant given the discrimination and loss suffered by many in the diaspora in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clubhouse empowered Chinese users’ lives by providing a platform for them to share their stories and pains, and reconnect with their cultural roots.

Another groundbreaking aspect of Clubhouse was that it encouraged people not only to speak but also to listen, because it required people to wait for their turn to speak. In large groups, some people may need to wait even one hour for a two-minute speech, giving people the opportunity to hear different points of view and absorb perspectives from outside the lines drawn by the Communist Party. Chinese citizens who have spent time away from China or even second- or third-generation immigrants in other countries, who previously had to get information about China from media, were given an opportunity to talk openly and listen to a variety of perspectives.

The success of Clubhouse was no more than a nine-day wonder, unfortunately. Concerned with the fact that debates on Clubhouse could pose an existential threat to the regime, the Chinese government eventually decided to ban the app on 8 February, just a little more than a week after it started to bloom in China. The ban came as no surprise because the platform is where Chinese elites, foreign experts, and overseas Chinese gather to discuss social problems and propose changes that could impact the Chinese regime profoundly. With the help of a VPN, Chinese users can still bypass the ‘Great Firewall’ to continue interacting with the Chinese diaspora on Clubhouse, but the number of users has dropped sharply. Fewer voices from mainland China could be heard, and topics of discussion have changed from politics to investments and relationships.

Even without the ban, the number of Chinese users would likely still have declined. Downloads of the Clubhouse app globally plummeted to less than one million in April, a nearly 90% decline from its monthly peak in February. This could be due to the fact that Clubhouse creates echo chambers where people with similar perspectives engage in discussions of limited topics. Additionally, some conversations may become repetitive and arguments may become one-sided. Gradually, as the sparks in the conversation die, people lose interest in the app.

Whether discussions like those seen on Clubhouse will arise again on a new platform remains unknown, but Clubhouse did provide a brief avenue for overseas Chinese to freely express their views, reconnect with their cultural roots, and understand more about what people in China think. This mutual understanding is important because it builds bridges of commonality over which not only certain limited topics can be discussed, but all kinds of political, historical, and cultural conversations can take place.

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