Clubhouse, the social media app that has attracted 6 million users around the world in its short 11 months of existence, became wildly popular in China this month. But the craze didn’t last long. Just about a week after it became trendy, Beijing blocked it.

The ban was a nuisance for members of China’s crypto community, who were among the country’s early adopters of the app and say they will still use it to enjoy the freedom of speech to discuss crypto-related topics with participants around the world. 

Clubhouse is an invitation-only, drop-in audio chat app begun last spring in Silicon Valley. Members who receive coveted invitations can join moderated conversations in rooms with up to 5,000 guests, chatting about tech news, fashion, karaoke and cryptocurrencies, among many topics. After Elon Musk, Tesla’s outspoken CEO, talked up bitcoin on Clubhouse on February 1, Chinese user interest in the app spiked up, as suggested by data from Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Weibo Clubhouse search
Weibo analytics show a spike in searches of the word “clubhouse” around February 1, 2021.

According to Weibo’s search index, before Feb. 1, very few Weibo users searched the word “clubhouse.” But by Feb. 6 there were almost 600,000 searches that included that word. Soon after China banned the app on Feb. 8 the search index reverted to near zero.

Many of the Chinese members in the chat app appear to be crypto enthusiasts, as shown by the popularity of certain rooms. Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao held an AMA (Ask Me Anything) in Clubhouse on Feb. 3 that attracted more than 1,000 members to that room. TRON cryptocurrency founder Justin Sun joined in early February and has already gained 184,000 followers. “Clubhouse is the soul revolution of social media in the next decade,” Sun posted on Weibo. 

Huobi, OKEx and other Chinese blockchain firms also set up accounts and began holding seminars at Clubhouse in February.

The core ideas of Clubhouse — freedom of speech, users’ autonomy and infinite opportunities for networking — perfectly resonate with the spirit of the crypto community, its members say.

“The concept of Clubhouse is quite similar to blockchain,” said Turbo Guo, a crypto enthusiast and 20-year-old student based in Guangzhou who spent three to four hours on Clubhouse during his first week as a member. “Clubhouse is decentralized — no such people as guest speakers — and everyone can share opinions if they want.”

Guo believes blockchain technology is still in its early stage and a lot of discussion is still necessary to find consensus among users. Clubhouse, he says, could provide a convenient platform for the crypto community to have these essential conversations. 

“Compared to reading articles on certain topics, live discussions give me the most up-to-date knowledge. Sometimes different participants have adverse opinions on one thing and I’ve learned a lot from their debates,” Guo said. 

But not everyone agrees. Yuning, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, is a financial regulator in Beijing who joined Clubhouse. She found many rooms where the discussion was billed as being on crypto topics, but she said she found the conversation random. Once when she entered a room where the discussion keyword was  “bitcoin,” she found the participants talking about lifestyles in Hainan, an island province in Southern China.

Getting around China’s firewall

For the Chinese members of Clubhouse, the app once represented a safe environment to discuss politics without censorship. 

At its peak, the “Is there a camp in Xinjiang?” room — a discussion of the genocide of the Uygur — attracted 4,800 people. Another room with the title “What are your memories of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989?” also gained traction. Clubhouse offered its users the chance to openly discuss censored topics that were blocked from any other Chinese app, including Weibo and WeChat. 

Crypto enthusiasts, who tend to be tech-savvy, are continuing to get around the ban to use the app. To use it now in China, an individual needs to have an iPhone (the app is not available on Android), then download the app from an overseas App Store, register using an overseas phone number, gain an invitation, and most important, use a stable VPN (virtual private network) that masks the phone’s location when using the app. 

The technical challenge appears to have cooled China’s enthusiasm for Clubhouse. During the first week in February, before China’s censors swooped in, the prices for Clubhouse invitation codes on Taobao, the country’s biggest e-commerce platform, went above 300 yuan (around US$46). During the last week of the month, after China’s ban and mainland members had to jump through hoops to use the app again, the market price had plummeted to around 50 yuan (or US$8). 

“I still open the app on a daily basis during the spring festival, but only for about half-hour, ” said Guo, referring to the roughly two-week observance of the Chinese New Year that ends today. ”The VPN somehow is not so stable these days, many routes break down, and I was busy with something else, so did not spend so much time on this.”

Yuning, the Beijing financial regulator, says she has given up using Clubhouse, saying she thought the conversations were time-consuming and found that “bypass[ing] the internet firewall made it inconvenient to use.” 

The WeChat index, which shows the popularity of a term among its predominantly Chinese users, had just 360,868 discussions on Feb. 25 about “clubhouse,” down from 8 million discussions on Feb. 7. 

Even Binance’s celebrity CEO Zhao saw the audience for his Feb. 25 “Ask Me Anything” fall dramatically to mere hundreds, and judging by the member names, were mostly non-Chinese.

But Guo believes an alternative app will rise and become popular, like Weibo as a Chinese mimic of the banned Twitter, and Youku, a local version of YouTube. “The need for discussion is here, the business model was proved workable, and the copycat version will show up sooner or later, ” Guo said.

In fact, TRON’s Sun announced on Feb. 2  that he invested in a Chinese audio-only social app called Two. Chinese entrepreneur and CEO of Smartisan, Luo Yonghao, posted on Weibo that over 10 Chinese companies he knows are trying to develop a similar app. 

Yuning, however, says she is not optimistic about the future of copycat Clubhouse apps. “It will be a censored application anyway, then it will be nothing unique.”