U.S.-based audio app Clubhouse appears to have been blocked in mainland China after users had flocked in recent weeks to the platform for uncensored discussions.
An increasing number of Chinese users have gravitated to the invitation-only app, seeing it as a rare forum to express their opinions—as it doesn’t record the conversations and thus provides a degree of privacy.
Dialogues about Hong Kong’s freedoms, the suppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Taiwan’s sovereignty, and other topics that Chinese censors usually deem too sensitive flourished on the app, even as Chinese users mused when Chinese authorities might come after the platform.
On one popular Chinese online marketplace, prices for the app’s invite codes soared to as much as 400 yuan ($62). Netizens made similar offers on the all-in-one social media app WeChat.
The burst of free expression was short-lived. On Feb. 8, thousands of Chinese internet users began complaining about having trouble accessing the app. Some also posted screenshots of their phone, with the error message: “An SSL error has occurred and a secure connection to the server cannot be made.”
“I only had one day of happiness,” one user lamented on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging platform. Another complained that a chat group about Taiwan had seemingly disappeared. The Chinese hashtag #ClubhouseBlocked was temporarily trending on Weibo before censors scrubbed it from search results.
“Just registered a Clubhouse account this morning, and now it’s already closed. Great,” another person wrote on Feb. 8.
A Weibo user with the moniker “Veronia at the Seaside” wrote that the purported censorship didn’t surprise her, given that it’s the “traditional craft of the porcelain country”—an euphemism for China.
Cui Xiaohuo, a former Chinese newspaper editor, shared a screenshot via Weibo of an email notification from Douban, a Chinese social networking site, informing him that his post with a Clubhouse hashtag had been removed. The Weibo post has since vanished.
The hawkish state-run tabloid Global Times said in a Feb. 8 editorial that the app is no “free speech haven,” citing an anonymous Clubhouse user who said discussions on the platform “could become anti-China political propaganda in a short period of time.”
Some Clubhouse users whose phone numbers begin with a Chinese country code also found that they could no longer receive verification messages sent from the app, Hong Kong media HK01 reported. As the app requires account verification for new and returning users, this would block mainland users from accessing their accounts if they log out or create a new account.
Some said that they could still access the app by using a VPN, encryption software that helps users to get around the Chinese internet firewall, according to the outlet.
Clubhouse didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.