(p. B1) For years, the Chinese government has prevented its 1.4 billion people from speaking freely online. A digital wall separated them from the rest of the world.
Then, for a precious few days, that wall was breached.
Clubhouse, a new social media app that emerged faster than the censors could block it, became a place for Mandarin Chinese speakers from the mainland and anywhere else to speak their minds. They had a lot to say.
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The Chinese government blocked the app Monday [Feb. 8, 2021] afternoon. I knew it was coming, and yet I still didn’t expect to feel so dismayed.
For that brief moment, people in China proved that they are as creative and well spoken as (p. B6) people who enjoy the freedom to express themselves. They lined up, sometimes for hours, to wait for their turns to speak. They argued for the rights of the government loyalists to speak despite their disagreements. They held many honest, sincere conversations, sometimes with tears and sometimes with laughter.
Those conversations helped illuminate why the Chinese government blocks free speech online in the first place. Those free-flowing exchanges threaten to debunk the caricatures that the state-controlled media often foists upon the Chinese people. The state media dismisses people like the Tiananmen protesters, pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong or those in Taiwan who want the island to take a different path from the mainland.
Likewise, mainlanders got a chance to prove that they aren’t brainwashed drones. People who had been demonized got a chance to speak out and be humanized.
Over the past two decades, Beijing has developed the most sophisticated online censorship system in the world. Big online platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were blocked long ago. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, a growing number of topics have become off limits on the Chinese internet. Clubhouse gave mainland Chinese users a chance to flock to chatrooms focused on those taboos.
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Several chatrooms were devoted to the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square, a heavily censored topic on the Chinese internet. Cai Chongguo, a student leader during the protests, talked for about four hours, sharing his stories and answering questions from thousands of people.
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Even during the freewheeling conversation, censorship was on the minds of many. On Monday afternoon, one room that reached Clubhouse’s maximum of 5,000 users featured speakers sharing their concerns over whether they would be questioned by the authorities for speaking out on the app.
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A few hours later, mainland users began to report that the app had been blocked. Several rooms were set up immediately for people to chat it over. I joined a room for people to mourn the blocking.
The title of the room featured three candle emoticons. People lined up to share their most memorable experience. A few speakers cried.
. . .
Ms. Sun, who lives in Germany, had never talked about such politically sensitive topics with strangers. Then, on Saturday, she had waited more than two hours to speak in a chatroom about those very topics with thousands of people from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the world.
Someday, she said in an interview, Chinese people would be able to talk freely. Many Eastern Germans didn’t expect the Berlin Wall to fall in 1989, she added, but it happened.
“Nobody can predict the future,” Ms. Sun said. “We should believe in humanity and humanity’s yearning for freedom.”
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 9, 2021, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; The Great Firewall Cracked, Briefly. A People Shined Through.”)