Space for China’s LGBTQ+ Communities Continues to Shrink

Leaked documents revealed last weekend that Shanghai University has ordered its colleges to collect lists of LGBTQ+ students and report on their personal lives. Citing unspecified “relevant requirements,” the university of 55,000 students did not explain what it would do with the collected information, sparking grave concern among student activists about the potential for discrimination. The measure is an ominous sign amid rapidly shrinking space for LGBTQ+ and feminist communities in China and ongoing government attempts to reinforce cis-hetero social morality. At SupChina, Jiayun Feng detailed those affected by the university order

The school is targeting anyone who is “non-heterosexual” (非异性恋者 fēiyìxìngliànzhě), and “LGBT rainbow groups” (彩虹族群 cǎihóngzúqún), which it said include:

  • Lesbians (女同性恋者 nǚtóngxìngliànzhě)
  • Gays (男同性恋者 nántóngxìngliànzhě) 
  • Bisexuals (双性向者 shuāngxìngxiàngzhě) 
  • Transgender (跨性别者 ​​kuàxìngbiézhě)

Although it’s unclear at this point what the university needs the information for or whether the move was ordered by Chinese authorities, a large number of LGBT+ activists and supporters have raised serious concerns online, saying that they fear the school’s LGBT+ community will face unfair discipline and other forms of persecution. 

[…] The document goes on to explain the scope of the survey, saying that the targeted individuals not only include gay and transgender people, but also anyone who is “non-heterosexual.” Details demanded by the university include students’ “ideological positions” — such as descriptions of their political stances, social contacts, and life plans — as well as students’ “psychological condition,” including summaries of their overall health and “mental disorders” if they have any. [Source]

This is the latest in a long list of repressive actions against the LGBTQ+ community in China, including frequent suppression of online LGBTQ+ content through deletions and content-sharing restrictions. In January, the Cyberspace Administration of China updated government restrictions on self-publishing on social media, forcing users to obtain an official license if they wanted to cover subjects such as “politics, economy, military, foreign relations, major breaking news events and others.” A month later, Qin Chen at South China Morning Post described how this effectively kneecapped organizing and communication among LGBTQ+ communities:

“For our community, the best way to outreach is through these online platforms. If we lose [WeChat], we lose the ability to connect and advocate for the community. There’s no way out of this.”

[…] Chen Xiang, cooperation manager at Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of China (PFLAG), an LGBT rights advocacy group, said he believes “the new rules will reduce the number of online commentaries and information available”.

Chen said he didn’t believe the new rules would directly affect PFLAG because the group promotes family and personal stories rather than news, but he worried minority voices could be silenced by the new rules, resulting in a homogenous society that only catered to mainstream views.

“If fewer people can comment on public events online, we will gradually lose a place to see things from a different perspective,” Chen said. “We might be back in a time when we can only read the things officials want us to read. [Source]

These concerns proved well-founded: in July, WeChat simultaneously deleted dozens of LGBTQ+ public accounts run by student groups at prominent Chinese universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Renmin University. Prior to this, these same student groups had endured harassment from the authorities. The reactions on social media were mixed, with some saying they supported the deletions, and others supporting the student groups with encouraging messages and the “We are all unnamed public accounts” movement.

In August, WeChat shut down a popular LGBTQ+ media site for reporting on events in the queer community. Later that same month, Tencent’s highly popular QQ messaging app appeared to block LGBTQ+ content from searches on the basis that it constituted “harmful information.” Protocol’s Zeyi Yang reported on the incident:

The software, available on both mobile and PC, allows users to find strangers and public group chats with key words. On Aug 30, searches with words like “gay,” “lesbian,” “LGBTQ,” and “蕾丝” (a Chinese slang term for lesbian) come back with a notice: “Use the Internet in a civil manner. Say no to harmful information.” QQ shows the same notice when users search for pornographic content. For other words like “同志 (Chinese slang for gay),” QQ only blocks the search results of group chats and doesn’t show the notice.

This practice could have started as early as in March 2021, when a Zhihu user posted a screenshot of a similar search result.

QQ was Tencent’s first massively popular product and enabled Tencent to rise to the rank of China’s most successful tech companies. While its popularity has dimmed after WeChat was released, QQ still has the second-largest number of users among social media platforms in China.” [Source]

After the publication of the Protocol article, QQ restored some of the blocked searches, but censorship of LGBTQ+ content remains pervasive, online and off. Soccer star Li Ying made headlines in June by coming out on Weibo, making her China’s first openly-gay female pro athlete, but after she was inundated with homophobic abuse, the post was quietly deleted. In March, the Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released in China in an edited version that omitted the word “gay” and any references to the singer’s sexuality. In February, a court in Jiangsu ruled in favor of a mental health textbook that described homosexuality as a “psychological disorder,” calling the description a “perceptual difference” instead of a factual error. Even the long-running Shanghai Pride celebration was cancelled indefinitely in 2020.

Motivating the attacks against LGBTQ+ communities is a potent mix of nationalism and fear of Western influence. Historically, those who identify as LGBTQ+ have often been cast as deviants from socialist ideology or agents of foreign influence. Maryann Xue at South China Morning Post highlighted the connection between the increase in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and growing hostility towards the U.S.:

“There is a tendency in China for some people to relate homosexuality and LGBT people to Western lifestyles or capitalistic, bourgeois decadence, so this was in line with a moral panic,” said Hongwei Bao, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Nottingham and specialist in queer politics in China.

“Especially now, there’s tension between China-West relations, so there is likely to be a heightened sense of nationalism which sees LGBT issues, feminist issues, as Western, as unfit for China.” [Source]

Censorship against LGBTQ+ groups appears to have emboldened some social media users to express their prejudices more openly. Their posts proclaiming xenophobic, homophobic, or sexist attitudes are seen by millions online, as reported by Shawn Yuan for Al Jazeera:

“So glad that the government is finally taking some action on the LGBT organisations,” wrote Ziwuxiashi, a Weibo account with more than 500,000 followers. “The grief from [the supporters of the community] is our song of triumph!” 

China’s more conservative forces have often exhibited a vehement hatred towards homosexuality or gender nonconformity for an alleged “agenda to destroy traditional values,” according to some vocal opponents of the movement, including some that brand themselves as science writers such as Vaccine and Science, an account with more than five million followers.

“To target these groups is a good move because these students have learned so many bad things from foreign powers and are becoming their agents,” one user commented on Weibo.

“To advocate for equality is to stage colour revolution, to support feminism is the infiltration of Hong Kong independence movement, and to be pro-LGBT community is to receive monetary support from [US President Joe] Biden,” Wu, an organiser for an LGBTQ rights advocacy group in Shanghai, told Al Jazeera, describing some of the accusations levelled at them. “To label ordinary people with political marks, and then persecute them – that’s [the government’s] go-to tactic.” [Source]

Another factor motivating hostility toward LGBTQ+ individuals and groups has been the perceived threat to “traditional Chinese values” by the rise of gender-nonconformity. Platforms like Douyin and Weibo have recently suspended accounts of men who express themselves in ways that challenge dominant views of masculinity, while at the same time preserving the accounts of popular male crossdressers who reinforce gender stereotypes. The suspensions are part of a broader ban by the government, reported by the Associated Press: “Broadcasters must ‘resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics,’ the TV regulator said, using an insulting slang term for effeminate men — ‘niang pao,’ or literally, ‘girlie guns.’” Some influential figures have endorsed discrimination against effeminate men when the issue has arisen in the past. In 2018, Wu Jing, the macho protagonist of “Wolf Warrior,” said that if his son were a sissy, he would “slap him in the face.”

Even the traditionally cosmopolitan haven of Hong Kong has not been insulated from these attacks. Despite the popularity of “Ossan’s Love,” a TV series about a romance between three men, lawmakers like Junius Ho have denigrated the show, calling it “marijuana coated in sugar,” and denouncing childless families as incompatible with traditional values and the “three-child policy.” Other lawmakers have attacked the Gay Games, scheduled to take place in Hong Kong later this year, and warned the city to merely “tolerate” but not promote homosexuality. Hong Kong is already riddled with legal impediments to greater equality for LGBTQ+ groups, which may become even harder to surmount as Beijing extends its influence. Forecasting the future and channeling the official stance on the matter, Global Times editor Hu Xijin claims that the LGBTQ+ community should not expect much more room for free expression: 

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