BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Private social audio app Clubhouse is attracting masses of new users from mainland China, where the US app remains uncensored by authorities despite flourishing discussions on 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 weed out content that could undermine the ruling communist party.
The Clubhouse app, launched in early 2020, 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 as of Sunday, invites to the platform were selling for between 50-400 yuan ($7.73 – $69.59) on popular Chinese e-commerce sites.
Reuters directly observed several Chinese-language ‘club’ conversations where thousands of users listened to wide-ranging audio discussions covering 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 the scope of apps, media outlets and social media sites banned in the country.
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.
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, including 8kun, a central hub for QAnon followers.
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 colony.
Another popular Chinese language club on the site as of Saturday involved a rare open exchange between netizens in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong over heightened political tensions in the region.
The discussion became a hot topic on China’s own Twitter-like social media site Weibo on Saturday.
“I don’t know how long this environment can last”, said one user in a popular Weibo post that was liked over 65,000 times. “But I will definitely remember this moment in Internet history.”
($1 = 6.4664 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Pei Li, additional reporting by Jessie Pang in Hong Kong; Editing by Kim Coghill)