The sudden and unexplained closure of a number of WeChat accounts dedicated to gay, trans, asexual, and feminist issues marks the latest setback for LGBTQ+ and women’s speech rights in China. The mass account closures happened on the eve of the August 22 Qixi Festival, a traditional celebration of the union of lovers long denied a chance to be together. It was unclear whether the date of the closures was coincidental or intentionally symbolic. A partial list of the accounts closed include: Flying Cat Brotherhood (飞天猫兄弟盟 fēitiānmāo xiōngdì méng), a gay men’s group; Transtory (船思 chuánsī), a group for transgender people; Ace (无性恋之声wúxìngliàn zhī shēng), one for asexual people; Wandouhuang (豌豆黄艺术小组 wāndòuhuáng yìshù xiǎozǔ), an artists’ group; Beijing Lala Salon (北京拉拉沙龙 Běijīng lā lā shālóng xiǎozǔ), for lesbian women; and PFLAG (北京出色伙伴 Běijīng chūsè huǒbàn), a group for the parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays. Radio Free Asia’s Gu Ting reported on the closures:
“Such accounts have been targeted once before two or three years ago,” said [veteran activist Li Tingting], who is better known in feminist circles as Li Maizi. “The government departments in charge of internet management have always targeted accounts linked to sexual minorities, which aren’t encouraged by the Chinese government.”
[…] A Shanghai-based lesbian who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals said she had been a member of Transtory and Ace.
“There must have been orders from higher up banning lesbians, gays and transgender folk,” she said. “It’s about awareness of one’s own gender, and what gender you think you are.” [Source]
The recent censorship of LGBTQ+ accounts—which follows an earlier mass censorship incident in 2021—follows months of incidents that indicate the Party-state is moving against the open expression of sexual and gender identity. In May, the landmark Beijing LGBT Center was shut down after a long pressure campaign initiated by authorities and its neighbors. More recently, Beijing concert-goers attending a performance by Taiwanese singer Chang Hui-mei, who is known for her LGBTQ+ advocacy, were banned from displaying rainbows on their clothing. Pride Month-themed merchandise was also reportedly removed from shelves in a Hebei Starbucks. State media rhetoric has matched the turn, with strident editorialization against “sissy boys” and the adoption of the euphemism “Westernized lifestyle” to describe lesbian women.
Many WeChat bloggers have spoken out against the effort to erase public LGBTQ+ identities. Blogger @季华乡的彩虹 wrote: “‘Banning the rainbow flag’ is a ridiculous, pathetic, and futile action. Sexual minorities cannot be banned out of existence. We support all voices calling for their right to equal treatment.” Another blogger, @肖浑, was even more forceful in their criticism of pride flag bans: “It beggars belief that this is not okay. Is even this wrong? Even this must be stamped out? Be shamed? Be fixed? How do you expect this group to live? Must they be reduced to zombies? Having ground them into the dirt, are you now hell-bent on burying them beneath it?”
University campuses have become a point of particular contention. So-called “rainbow hunters”—campus employees and counselors—have been deployed to find students displaying pride flags or other LGBTQ+-related symbols on campus. At The New York Times in June, Nicole Hong and Zixu Wang reported on two queer students at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University who shared the concerted effort the school made to prevent them from making even modest public statements about LGBTQ+ issues:
When the two women distributed rainbow flags on campus last year, and resisted school administrators who confronted them, the university issued a punishment that would stay on their permanent records. When they tried in March to place flowers outside the dorm of a transgender classmate who died by suicide, they were surrounded by security. When they posed with rainbow flags in a photo in May, a university employee ran over and said they were not allowed to post the images online.
[…] Then, last year on May 14, before a pride day in China, they spread 10 rainbow flags on a table inside a supermarket on campus. “Please take ~ #PRIDE,” they scribbled on an accompanying note.
A surveillance camera caught them.
School officials barged into their dorms that night, the women said. The school later accused them of promoting a “harmful influence,” according to written decisions by the university explaining the punishment. [Source]
Activists are often singled out for particular discrimination amid the Party-state’s accusations that LGBTQ+ groups, as “vulnerable groups,” are potential instruments for the American influence in China. In a recent essay for China Change, Li Tingting recalled that the policeman assigned to monitor her for the past decade had called her before her planned Zoom wedding to warn her that same-sex unions are illegal. (Li married her partner anyway, through a Zoom wedding officiated in the United States’ Utah County, which became a popular virtual destination for Chinese LGBTQ+ couples to get married during the pandemic.) Authorities have put organizers of LGBTQ+ organizations under tremendous pressure in an effort to force them to shutter their groups, according to reporting from Annabelle Liang at the BBC:
A leader of another LGBT organization, who has also left China, told the BBC that pressure from authorities has taken a toll on those pushing for social change.
“Organizers have been detained, and their friends and family members have been questioned by the police. This results in a lot of mental health pressure,” said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Before the pandemic, the environment for LGBT groups was great. We could speak out loud and we won some legal cases,” the activist added. [Source]
Nonetheless, activists and community members continue to speak out for their right to express themselves. Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor found evidence of 9 Pride Month-related events in Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou—although 4 were met with repression including events and police disruption of events: