(p. A1) One by one, the chatroom participants took the digital microphone as thousands quietly listened in.
A Chinese man said he did not know whether to believe the widespread reports of concentration camps for Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang. Then a Uighur woman spoke up, calmly explaining that she was certain of the camps’ existence because her relatives had been among those interned. A man from Taiwan chimed in to urge understanding on all sides, while another from Hong Kong praised the woman for her courage in coming forward.
It was a rare moment of cross-border dialogue with people on the mainland of China, who are usually separated from the rest of the online world by the Great Firewall. For a short time, they found an open forum on the social media app, Clubhouse, to discuss con-(p. A10)tentious topics, free from the usual constraints of the country’s tightly controlled internet.
By Monday [Feb. 8, 2021] evening, the inevitable happened: The Chinese censors moved in. Many mainland users reported receiving error messages when they tried to use the platform. Some said they could only access the app by tunneling through the digital border using a VPN, or virtual private network. Within hours, more than a thousand users had tuned in to hear a discussion about the ban in a chatroom titled “Walled off, so now what?” Searches for “Clubhouse” on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo were blocked.
To many users in mainland China, it was a brief window into an unfettered social media. Under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, the government has been ramping up its efforts to assert near-total digital control over what its citizens read and say online.
. . .
“Clubhouse is exactly what Chinese censors don’t want to see in online communication — a massive, freewheeling conversation in which people are talking openly,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls. “It’s also a reminder that when there is an opportunity, many Chinese have a desperate need to talk to each other and to hear different view points.”
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(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 25, 2021, and has the title “In China, an App Offered Space for Debate. Then the Censors Came.”)