For Five Days There Was Free Expression in China – Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence

In March 2020, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Davidson and former Google engineer Rohan Seth launched their newest app, Clubhouse. The app is an invite-only audio chat app that lets users talk in virtual rooms. These conversations can be one-on-one or they could have an audience of up to 5,000 users (the current room limit in the beta version of the app). The app is only available on the iPhone and, once invited, users must use their actual phone number and Apple ID to join. Each user is only allowed to invite up to five people.

The app’s exclusive nature gave it the tantalizing aura of the “next-big-thing” among the tech types. On January 31, Space-X’s Elon Musk made an appearance on the app to discuss Mars missions, COVID, GameStop stock, and other hot topics. On February 4, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also dropped in.

One attractive feature of Clubhouse is it doesn’t keep a record of the conversations. That enables semi-private conversations (participants can record them). After Musk’s and Zuckerberg’s visit to the app, mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, Uyghurs living abroad, and others flocked to the app. Some even bought invites on Taobao (China’s online shopping site) for up to US$46. Many saw Clubhouse as an opportunity to talk to people in a way that they usually could not about taboo topics in China, such as Tiananmen Square,