Clubhouse Cracked China’s Firewall. A People Shined Through.

Clubhouse allows up to 5,000 users to join audio chatrooms that disappear once the conversation is over. Some users said its format made them feel more willing to share personal stories and listen to different opinions. One user said in a chatroom about censorship that everyone could see that all those people who in the mainland were labeled dissidents, like Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, were real people. No longer were they hearing their voices filtered through official media.

Since Saturday, I spent nearly all my waking hours wandering from one Clubhouse chatroom to another. In one room, a documentary filmmaker shared his thoughts on making a film about a subculture of young migrant workers, called Smart, who try to stand out in a conformist culture through wild hair and piercings. In another, a doctoral student in sociology talked about his experiences as a meal delivery worker. A group of feminists read works by feminist writers. More than 3,000 people joined a chatroom that was dedicated to parodying Hu Xijin, possibly the most infamous Communist Party propagandist. (A favorite line: “As long as we have enemies everywhere, we have no enemies.”)

One chatroom with more than 100 people from northwestern China, where I’m from, focused on their interactions with ethic minorities. A woman from Gansu Province talked about how Muslims in her hometown were portrayed as troublemakers and how she learned to understand why it was offensive to hang the Chinese national flag in a mosque.

I learned about the de-islamization of my home, the Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region, after several people shared witness accounts. Jin Xu, an assistant art history professor at Vassar College who grew up there, talked about how his drawing of the Nanguan Mosque, a landmark of Ningxia, won a national award as a sixth-grader and how the mosque had been brutally reconstructed into what he told me in an interview was an ugly concrete building that eliminated its exterior elements of Islamic art and architecture.

One chatroom asked the participants to criticize the governments where they live, be it China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan or the United States. The moderator called on each speaker by asking, “So which government would you like to criticize?” In China, where open criticism is treated as treachery, it felt like performance art.

Several chatrooms were devoted to the bloody, 1989 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. He said he didn’t expect so many people would be interested.