Thousands of Chinese users suddenly found themselves unable to access Clubhouse on early Monday evening as the country prepared to start the week-long Lunar New Year holiday. Inside WeChat groups, Clubhouse users rushed to report the situation and help each other with ways to get back onto the red hot live audio app.
Audio drop-in startup Clubhouse was rapidly gaining steam in China, attracting a bevy of users early on to conversations on a wide range of topics. The app seemed likely to meet the fate of other U.S.-based apps and services, however – namely, a ban – and as of Monday, that indeed what Clubhouse faces, as confirmed by TechCrunch. Clubhouse is no longer available to users in China, and is unlikely to return given how much the app’s model would have to change to comply with Chinese internet regulation.
Clubhouse has faced criticism at home in the U.S. for its lack of effective moderation and abuse-prevention practices, so it’s hardly a surprise that it has fallen afoul of China’s rather more strict enforcement of measures designed to stifle the spread information the government deems inappropriate for discussion. The app was also not officially available via Apple’s China App Store, though access to it and its audio rooms was, before today, freely available without use of a VPN provided a user had the app installed on their device.
As Clubhouse was not listed on the Chinese App Store, so it’s unclear how many people from mainland China were on the platform. A room discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest, a taboo topic in China, reached the maximum number of participants at 5,000 on Friday. Some users are reporting inside WeChat groups that they can no longer receive verification codes at their Chinese phone numbers, which could provide additional clues to the level of blockage. Users in China used their Chinese phone numbers to sign up for Clubhouse, and those are linked to their real ID in the country, which means there are potential risks for those who registered.
In the past two weeks, Clubhouse soared in popularity within a few communities in mainland China, including people in startups, investment, academic, or those with overseas background. Many of them were aware the app wouldn’t last long in China given free and often political debates frequented the platform. Clubhouse rooms titled “How long will Clubhouse last in China” and “Have you been invited to have tea for using Clubhouse?” attracted big crowds. “Having tea” is a euphemism for being taken away for interrogation by the police.
As TechCrunch noted on Saturday, Clubhouse’s early success prior to this shutdown has already prompted the creation of a number of homegrown alternatives designed around drop-in audio networking. Clubhouse’s popularity in China, however, may be difficult to replicate for any of these similar efforts – for the same reasons the original app itself is now inaccessible within the country.
With a Great Firewall circumvention tool like a virtual private network (VPN), some users on mainland China managed to regain access to Clubhouse.
We will update with more information about the ban….