MANAGING EDITOR ZHI JIAO DANIELLE GOH WRITES — Clubhouse has recently gained media and investment attention, having secured roughly a billion valuation-10 times higher than its actual app valuation.

But what, exactly, is Clubhouse? It’s an audio chat-based social media app created during the pandemic. Users can hop in and out of rooms, listen to different conversations, join discussions and, more importantly, perhaps get an interview with a top CEO.  Just think-Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg surprisingly dropped into one of the tech rooms, within one week of each other, and conversed with listeners.

What makes Clubhouse attractive is its exclusiveness. Users get access by invite-only, and each user can send out only a limited number of invites. Still, this hasn’t stopped the Chinese from finding ways to join the app and venture into censor-free debates.  On China’s most popular e-commerce site, Taobao, clubhouse invites are selling at 288rmb (USD 40).

For the Chinese, Clubhouse has provided a platform to talk freely about sensitive topics ranging from Hong Kong’s National Security Law to Taiwan independence, Xinjiang reeducation camps and feminism. Thousands of Chinese people have flooded these rooms, with the numbers rising as Clubhouse has gained popularity on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media site. More than 65,000 Chinese have liked a recent Weibo post introducing Clubhouse.

The rise of Clubhouse provides hope for meaningful topical debate, reversing the ever-increasing norm of people in the world over shutting out those who have opposing views. For now, the conversations on Clubhouse have been respectful. The popularity of Clubhouse shows the desire of Chinese netizens to engage in open discussion despite disagreements.

And yet, Beijing is prone to intolerance regarding western social media apps, especially those which include information deemed sensitive. Most of the major English language social media sites have been blocked in China. Cyber censorship has been increasingly strict in recent years, resulting in the banning of people, brands or websites offering the slightest hint of viewpoints that differ from the official positions of the Chinese government.

The million dollar question of the day, then, is this: “How long can Clubhouse remain standing in China?”   Or, put another way: Just how strong, or not, is the foundation of Chinese public opinion?

Updates: As of 2/8 Monday evening (Beijing Time), China has quietly banned Clubhouse and deleted relevant discussions on Weibo. Taobao’s sales of invites have also been taken down. 

Clubhouse is currently only available on iPhone App Store.  

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