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A Ban on Gay Content, Stopped in Its Tracks

A ChinaFile Conversation

On April 13, China’s major microblogging platform Sina Weibo announced that, in order to create “a sunny and harmonious” environment, it would remove videos and comics “with pornographic implications, promoting bloody violence, or related to homosexuality.” On April 16, after a public outcry, Sina reversed the ban on gay-themed content. Although Beijing decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, and stopped classifying it as a mental disorder in 2001, a 2016 United Nations Development Program survey found only 5 percent of the country’s gender and sexual minorities were publicly “out.” What does the Sina Weibo incident say about gay rights in China? How much of a factor was the protest against the initial ban? And what, if anything, does it portend for the relationship between public protest and government censorship? —The Editors

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Weibo’s abrupt about-face regarding its decision to censor LGBT-related content represents a significant and hard-won victory for Chinese LGBT rights advocates. Right down to the carefully selected hashtag campaigns that were deployed to great effect across social media platforms, this success was the result of years of sustained advocacy efforts by the Chinese LGBT community. From lawsuits against practitioners of so-called “gay conversion therapy” to testimony before the United Nations Committee Against Torture, the message from leading Chinese LGBT rights advocates in recent years has been both simple and powerful: Homosexuality is not a mental disease. Finally, if an editorial in the People’s Daily is any indication, it appears that someone in power is listening.

What that will mean in the coming months and years of continued LGBT-focused rights advocacy is of course difficult to predict. While it is true that this marks the very first time such an unambiguous message of support for the LGBT community has been made by a Party-affiliated newspaper, the present outlook for the type of civil society advocacy that made this possible is itself under threat. According to new laws and policies governing registration of NGOs and other social organizations, very few LGBT-focused groups have been able to formally register in ways that permit them to legally raise funds or carry out their important work. Further, those groups that have registered are now subject to higher scrutiny from public security authorities and other government departments in setting work plans and implementing projects. While this is not to say it is impossible for these groups to survive, it does limit their scope and effectiveness, and makes it harder for them to build the communities and foster the widespread public awareness of LGBT issues that make large-scale campaigns like this one possible in the first place.

At the same time, it is as always important to remember that the Chinese government is not a monolith, and space for civil society advocacy will persist so long as enough officials from relevant departments remain sympathetic to the work or, at a minimum, do not see it as a threat. So long as the objectives of LGBT-focused NGOs and other groups remain consistent with the government’s own goals, such as reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS or combating gender-based discrimination, it is likely that continued progress will be made. Indeed, given that it is increasingly clear that a significant segment of Chinese society, particularly the younger generation, is sympathetic to the challenges faced by LGBT people, it is very possible the government may be more inclined to work with LGBT advocates than was previously the case.

Nevertheless, LGBT rights advocacy in China will remain a complex issue, and advocates will have to continue to be prepared to work in an opaque and changeable environment. This is nothing new, and with this new victory in hand, these advocates are well-prepared for the road ahead. The trick for the rest of us will be finding ways to support them.

Sina Weibo’s abrupt U-turn on its gay content ban after a public outcry has allowed Chinese netizens to relish a rare moment of victory amid an intensifying government crackdown on the country’s fast-expanding social media platforms.

While that was the main headline for my CNN story and many other news reports, I couldn’t help but notice a deep sense of unease and uncertainty among some of China’s leading LGBT rights advocates as well as members of the gay community and their allies.

Activists described the rising pressure and interference they face in their daily work—and asked for anonymity for fear of official reprisal. Forced cancellation of events and visits by state security agents have become more common, they said, but it’s not surprising given the Communist Party’s tightening grip over all aspects of society—and, like the rest of civil society, they try to adapt and fight smart.

They pointed to an earlier example in 2016 when censors banned homosexuality on TV and online as part of their effort to clean up “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content,” saying Weibo’s aborted campaign was but the latest sign of a worsening political environment for LGBT visibility and advocacy.

One advocate noted an unexpected decline in the number of news stories on LGBT issues in Chinese media last year, a development that coincided with President Xi Jinping’s pledge to reassert the Party’s absolute control over media and messaging.

Another prominent activist said, while state media outlets have interviewed him numerous times for his charity work in a field not directly related to the LGBT cause, he felt increasingly disappointed that editors inevitably removed the part that he proudly talked about his sexuality and LGBT-related work—despite his insistence to leave it in.

Echoing online sentiments, not all activists see Weibo’s reversal as a clear win for LGBT rights in China. While an official order may have prompted the original Weibo decision, its corporate—as opposed to government—status made it easier to have an about-face without losing too much face. Some even wondered if the authorities used Weibo to test public reactions to see how far they could go in suppressing gay voices: “I can’t be sure but fear the worst is yet to come.”

Others viewed the incident as part of the government’s “stick and carrot” approach to a minority group, dismissing gestures conveyed in a widely shared People’s Daily commentary that highlighted the diversity of sexualities and importance of non-discrimination: “They keep beating you with a big stick and then offer you a small carrot—how’s that a victory?”

Ironically, the activist who sounds most sanguine about the future is the one whose protesting statement on his popular Weibo page triggered much of the outpouring of support after the initial ban. Hua Zile, founder of “The Gay Voice,” stressed the need to work with the government as well as respect its official policy and “red lines”—as he has for years.

“Keeping close contact and cooperation with the government is important,” he told me on the phone. “By being hostile or confrontational with the authorities, many LGBT groups turn themselves into a big target.”

“This Party respects science,” he added. “It’s impossible for the leaders to oppose a sexual orientation when it’s scientifically proven to be normal and not an illness.”

It seems that those who feel optimistic after Weibo’s ban reversal are international observers and heterosexual Chinese who took part in the #IamGay movement, rather than LGBT activists themselves.
 
This makes sense because I think we are all hungry for some good news about China’s civil society for a change. But the mood on the ground is gloomy.

"They haven’t yet deleted the original notice and there’s been no apology, so for us, it's still not really over—there are many challenges we still face,” Xiao Tie, director of the Beijing LGBT Center, said in an interview with my Agence France-Presse colleague.

“This is an incremental victory and quite a positive signal, but I also think Sina was mostly worried about its stock tanking,” she said.
 
Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in China until 2001 and a crime until 1997, and authorities have arrested gay rights activists and shut down numerous gay community events. Clinics throughout the country still offer homosexuality "cures" involving electroshocks, confinement and even chemical castration.

It is important to note that the short-lived Weibo ban wasn’t the first attempt to censor LGBT content.

In early 2016, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) banned television shows showing homosexual relationships—and that ban stands, along with a similar ban on live streaming platforms.
 
Trans rights activism is practically nonexistent, and there is a lot of stigma in mainland China against trans people, including from within the queer community.
 
Queer female activists have also suffered more persecution than their male peers. Perhaps this is because many gay women in China are also highly active in women’s rights advocacy. That just creates more reasons why authorities may see them as troublemakers.
 
Academic Leta Hong-Fincher has noted authorities’ tighter monitoring of women’s sexuality in general. This includes the continued control over women’s reproductive choices under the “two-child policy.”
 
But Xiao Tie’s reference to Sina’s fears about its stock tanking speaks to a kind of power that the gay community still has.
 
Last year, I wrote in Foreign Policy about tech companies scrambling to show their LGBT friendly attitudes in social media ads.
 
Companies are aware that LGBT Chinese, as a group, spend somewhere north of $300 billion annually, although precise estimates differ.
 
Same-sex marriage is illegal in China, but that didn’t stop Alibaba from running a contest in early 2015 awarding 10 couples with all-expense paid weddings in Los Angeles.
 
While China still has no legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, internal policies in some companies are changing to promote tolerance.
 
The #IamGay hashtag is one of many signs that point to greater acceptance of sexual minorities in China, especially among younger city dwellers.
 
The steady march toward progressiveness is something that evidently makes authorities nervous.
 
Anyone interested in Chinese social movements should follow Lü Pin (@piperpiner) on Twitter. She is the founder of the online group, Feminist Voices, which had its influential Weibo account deleted by Sina last month.
 
After Weibo reversed its homosexuality ban, Lü warned: “This victorious moment definitely deserves celebrating for a while before [the] next wave of suppression comes.”

The Sina Weibo about-face is more nuanced than appears at first glance. Here’s the first complication: the original announcement from Weibo never intended to ban all gay content. In fact, it was targeting a very niche Internet subculture revolving around anime, comics, and gaming rather than LGBTQ activism.

In the initial ban, Weibo listed some examples of the type of content it was targeting: “fu (腐)”, “ji (基)”, “danmei (耽美),” and “benzi (本子).”

Fu, or rotten, comes from the Japanese word fujoshi, and refers to manga or anime telling fictional stories of romantic entanglements between two men. “Ji”, “danmei”, and “benzi” are also terms used in this ardent fandom and Internet subculture known as BL, or Boy’s Love. Most of the creators and consumers of BL on Weibo are young, straight Chinese women. BL content makes up of a significant fraction of the platform’s user-generated content—a fact well known to regulators. BL is NOT the same as gay, or queer. It is fictional, where coercion, rape and abuse are common motifs. Confusing the two is like confusing hardcore Harry Potter-Draco Malfoy erotica with the wholesome, family-friendly Instagram feeds of Queer Eye’s Fab Five. Weibo’s initial ban, therefore, never intended to silence LGBTQ activist communities or to take down content such as simple selfies of same-sex couples.

It also makes sense that Weibo would issue this ban at this particular time. Its competitors, including Kuaishou and Bytedance Tech, had recently been criticized by China’s Internet watchdog for failing to self-censor. For Weibo, removing BL content was low-hanging fruit to appease the watchdog. BL is popular but taboo. Affected users are unwilling to voice their dissent given BL is a secret, guilty pleasure for most.

What happened next was a testament to the ingeniousness and social media savviness of today’s young generation of Chinese LGBTQ activists. “The Gay Voices”—one of China’s most influential LGBTQ accounts—issued a statement to its 200,000 followers, stating it would “suspend the account indefinitely due to uncontrollable forces.” The vaguely worded announcement ignited widespread outrage within the online LGBTQ community. After that, the hashtag #IAmGay went viral and many users vowed to file formal complaints against Weibo. This backlash likely far exceeded Weibo’s expectations. As to whether “The Gay Voices” account was ever suspended is still disputed within the LGBTQ activist community. Hua Zile, founder of “The Gay Voices,” told me Weibo never officially told them to stop posting. “There was no order. It was our own decision to stop updating after seeing the initial ban,” Hua said. He said a friend who works at Weibo called him and said maybe it would be better to lay low for a while. But the director of a prominent gay rights organization who wished to remain anonymous told me there was never any evidence suggesting that Weibo would take any action against the account. “They [The Gay Voices] seized this opportunity to start a successful, viral campaign, which indeed led to some positive outcomes, but I, for one, believe facts still matter.”

Multiple activists also told me that Weibo’s about-face does not mean the site is a safe platform to organize and fight for concrete changes in LGBTQ policy. Neither they, nor Weibo, know where the line is drawn or when they might cross it.

Weibo’s halt to its gay content purge has been celebrated, rightly, as an example of public pressure forcing a big, state-supported enterprise into rethinking its application of China’s ever-shifting censorship regulations.

I’ve not celebrated as enthusiastically as most, simply because this wasn’t a “reversal.” The purged content remained purged. The shuttered accounts remained shuttered. Even the tepid editorial in the People’s Daily that trotted out the tired platitude about building consensus on respecting different sexual orientations was unapologetic—“If people use all possible means to please the public with claptrap, get attention on Internet platforms, and take sexual orientation as a ‘selling point,’ the content will become vulgar and profane.”

To my mind, this wasn’t a surrender to the inevitability of LGBT equality in terms of online visibility—it was simply a ceasefire. The direction of travel remains clear: China’s censors have taken a look at the queer community, have determined that they constitute a risk to agreed narratives, and are looking at how to suppress a rising tide of visibility in social and entertainment media.

This brief respite needs to be seen as the eye of the storm. Now is a chance to change minds, by bringing LGBT individuals fully out into the open. As with the liberation movement in the U.S. and Europe, that means resorting to the only weapon available in a state that exercises such rigid control over its broadcast and digital media—using the platforms available to increase visibility until the authorities shut off the power. In short, we all need to come out, collectively, to everyone around us—in person, online, and, if possible, through engagement with the media.

I’ve argued against this dramatic course of action in the past—the agony that it will cause individuals and their families is something I felt could be mitigated so long as the authorities didn’t actively seek to persecute sexual minorities. That is no longer case, and the Band-Aid of gradually changing hearts and minds through low-key incremental dialogue needs to be ripped off. We must bleed to save our community from a far more oppressive and potentially fatal reckoning.

Right now, data indicate the great Chinese public is apathetic towards queer equality. The cacophony of outrage surrounding the Weibo content ban came chiefly from young, vocal users. There’s a bigger silent majority that needs to be reached, including the decision makers in Zhongnanhai. And we need to use every avenue to reach them, to endear ourselves and our struggle to their hearts and minds, to make them see us as sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, grandparents, coworkers, and upstanding contributors to society.

Only then can we hope to escape what I firmly believe is an imminent crackdown on any and all voices whose tenor jars with the authorities’ rigid interpretation of a harmonious society.

The recent incident at Sina Weibo—the major Chinese microblogging website and one of the world’s largest social media platforms that banned homosexuality-related content for about 66 hours in mid-April—has sparked a series of discussions both at home and abroad, and inside and outside the LGBT+ community.

Whoever was involved in Sina Weibo’s content-ban decision showed inadequate understanding of homosexuality and the Cybersecurity Law, a law that was cited as the legal grounds for the company’s policy. Without explanation, homosexuality was put in the same category as pornography and bloody violence. As a matter of fact, neither the Cybersecurity Law nor the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, nor the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders, has any words at all against homosexuality. When Sina Weibo abruptly reversed itself, the company simply stated that it no longer would target homosexuality-related content. It did not acknowledge its ignorance or the offense perpetrated against lesbian and gay people and their friends and families. Furthermore, the company failed to offer a public apology and failed to take concrete steps to raise homosexuality awareness inside the company.

It would be in the best interest of Sina Weibo if the company immediately introduced a company-wide educational program on gender-related issues, such as LGBT+, sexual health and well-being, and inclusive development—all in collaboration with people from the LGBT community, experts, and nonprofits specializing in this field. Having a comprehensive, accurate, and empathetic understanding of these issues through people-to-people communication at all levels of the company would not only help Sina Weibo make better policies and create a more positive and responsible social image but also, more importantly, help it retain its users, show respect to its LGBT+ employees, boost productivity, and ultimately increase its profits.