In a rare instance of a legal challenge to restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights, two Tsinghua University students filed a lawsuit last week against the Chinese Ministry of Education for refusing to consider their appeal against disciplinary action imposed after the students distributed 10 small rainbow pride flags on the Tsinghua campus in May of 2022, in advance of Pride Month.
Semaphor’s Diego Mendoza reported on the background to the recent lawsuit and the previous appeals made by the students:
The students, who only identified themselves as Huang and Li, said that while their disciplinary action has technically expired due to school regulations, they were committed to pursuing the lawsuit because “it’s still a fact that [they] were penalized for flying rainbow flags.”
[…] The students appealed the disciplinary action, first directly with the university, and then with the Beijing Municipal Education Commission, which upheld the university’s punishment in October.
The students finally appealed to the Ministry of Education which informed the two students in early February that they would not intervene because the issue was outside the scope of their administrative duties. [Source]
Vanessa Cai of the South China Morning Post provided further detail on the lawsuit, which was filed with the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court last Monday, and on what the students hoped to achieve:
Huang [one of the plaintiffs in the suit] said they might consider appealing again if the court did not rule in their favour. “We feel a bit pessimistic about getting a win in the ruling … [but] the lawsuit still has its significance in raising public awareness,” she said.
[…] Yanzi Peng from LGBT Rights Advocacy China said it was impressive that the students were consistently trying to defend their rights through legal means. The university’s penalty reflected a “politicised” misunderstanding and handling, Peng said.
[…] Liang Ge, a researcher in gender, sexuality and popular culture at King’s College London, said an institutional and structural inequality of power between the college administration and the students made them “extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged”.
“The university’s strict control over the expression of the LGBTQ+ community tries to make the queer invisible, marginalised and dispossessed,” Ge said, adding that homophobia and transphobia could be found in almost all mainland university administrative systems. [Source]
Information about the case and the various legal appeals has been subject to strict censorship online. A recent post about the lawsuit against the Ministry of Education—which first appeared on the WeChat account 烈火战车洗车行 (Liehuo Zhanche Xichehang, “Chariots of Fire Car Wash”)—was deleted despite trying to evade censorship by replacing “Tsinghua University” with “Hogwarts University,” and “Ministry of Education” with “Ministry of Magic.”
CDT Chinese editors have also archived a number of deleted posts about the original display of flags, the punishment meted out to the students, and the students’ subsequent unsuccessful attempt to appeal to the Beijing Municipal Education Commission. In one archived post, one of the students explained the free-speech logic that motivated them: “As stated in our appeal, we just want to reaffirm a fundamental, commonsense political and legal concept—that no one should be punished for constitutionally protected speech, that ideas are not against the law, and that people should be free to speak their minds.”
The Tsinghua students’ lawsuit comes at a time of shrinking space for China’s LGBTQ+ communities, both online and off. LGBTQ+ groups have had their social media accounts shuttered, university students have been harassed and punished for expressing pride or solidarity, and there has been an uptick in censorship of LGBTQ+ content in film and television, including retroactive cuts to long-popular streaming staples such as Friends.