Weibo’s Gay Content Ban U-turn—a Limited Victory?

On Monday, Chinese microblogging platform Weibo cancelled plans, announced four days previously, to "clean up" content related to homosexuality alongside that involving pornography or violence. The announcement had sparked a wave of protest under banners such as the hashtags #IAmGay and #IHaveGayFriends. At the Elephant Room newsletter, authors Yan and Biyi describe "half-hearted" initial censorship of the backlash and question the significance of the U-turn in light of other recent cases of censorship: suspension of the Feminist Voices collective’s Weibo account, stifled discussion of sexual assault scandals involving university professors, and official pressure on purveyors of "vulgar" app content.

Viewing the 4-day drama in light of these events, we couldn’t help but to doubt its “triumph” nature. As much as it being a success of the people, ultimately, it reveals an ironic and chilling reality: as the Chinese government tightens its grip over virtually all internet platforms, companies like are left with no choice but to self-censor, at all costs, and through all means possible. Although some domestic TV shows featuring gay content were called off by the authority in recent years, there wasn’t any direct order on banning homosexual content in China just yet, and ’s clean-up notice on the 13th didn’t specify whether the movement was self-initiated or ordered from certain government departments. Still, seeing other companies’ recent problems in this new wave of government control, had to self-protect by doing the “right” thing: correct itself, before it was being corrected.

We are probably just ranting about the obvious. But really, the more we think about it, the more confused we get. Social injustices are not allowed to be talked about – fine. “Aggressive” verdicts over gender and sex should be eliminated – OK. “Vulgar” and “low-class” content must be removed completely – as much as we don’t agree nor apprehend the definitions of these terms, we could try our best to half-heartedly accept it. Still, as citizens of China and people who care about social issues in general, we just need to know, what exactly can we talk about? What are the boundaries, and who gets to decide them?

Weibo doesn’t know, other internet companies don’t know, users don’t know. And, at the end of the day, maybe even the top doesn’t know. [Source]

James Palmer examined the same context and the reasons for the reversal at Foreign Policy on Tuesday:

The change in policy was a rare win after years of tightening repression on online speech, beginning with a crackdown in 2012 on Weibo, then a thriving service that was the main vehicle for discussion, dissent, and exposure of corruption in China. That stifled the platform and forced many users to switch to more private platforms such as WeChat, which in turn became the target of increasingly harsh restraints. But the reason for the victory is simple: The government doesn’t particularly care about the issue, and the public does.

Official homophobia in China has never reached the level of countries such as Russia or Uganda, where gay men are demonized as an alien, predatory threat. Since China ended the prosecution of gay men under hooliganism laws, the authorities have been uncomfortable with groups but not violently hostile to them. “For generations, there’s been no active Chinese state pushback against ,” says Adam Robbins, a Shenzhen-based journalist and veteran of the equal marriage campaign in the United States. “Instead, the policy was ‘don’t encourage, don’t discourage, don’t promote.’” Chinese state propaganda barely, if ever, mentions LGBT issues.

[…] So why was the crackdown threatened in the first place? Chinese media restraints are a mixture of direct orders from above and, increasingly, preemptive restraints by companies trying to show the correct level of deference toward the government. The danger of not showing the right attitude was on display last week when one popular social media firm was forced to offer a tearful apology for not curating its online content strictly enough, promising to hire thousands more censors and properly respect “socialist core values.” [Source]

Read more on that case and other recent pledges of more intensive content control by Weibo and others, via CDT. Despite a recruitment drive to that end in September, Weibo was reprimanded by the Cyberspace Administration of China in January over "serious problems" with "content of wrong public opinion orientation, obscenity, low taste, and ethnic discrimination," which "has violated the country’s laws and regulations, led online public opinions to wrong direction and left a very bad influence." Such scolding likely led to the firm’s overstepping last week.

Adam Minter also commented on the reversal at Bloomberg View:

[…] In 2016, the authorities banned a wildly popular gay-themed online drama and then prohibited television programs from showing homosexual content altogether. Last year, they shut down Rela, the country’s leading lesbian app, after it helped organize a protest by mothers of LGBT children.

Each of these instances generated intense opposition that quickly evaporated. But a showdown was clearly looming. Last year, the government announced a ban on gay content in online programming. Public anger flared, especially because the directive connected homosexuality to sexual abuse and violence. Last Friday, that flare became a blaze when Sina Weibo began enforcing its new policy. "I am gay and I’m proud, even if I get taken down there are tens of millions like me!" wrote one outraged user. By Saturday, protest hashtags such as #IAmGay and #IAmAFriendtoGays had been viewed 240 million times. Sina Weibo, caught off guard, soon backtracked.

Not every group in China enjoys that kind of support. In recent days, the government shut down a popular joke app noted for ribald humor; since then, the app’s frustrated members, numbering in the millions, have rallied in opposition. But the public is largely ambivalent about their travails, and the authorities have little reason to back down.

Regulators haven’t yet commented on Sina Weibo’s decision. But the broad and spontaneous opposition to the ban surely caught their attention. At a time when the central government is otherwise becoming more powerful, it remains wary of interfering with what urban middle-class Chinese view as the private lives of their fellow citizens. Increasingly, that extends to gay Chinese as much as anyone else. [Source]