Out of the shadows

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2007, 12:00am

The media have spent the past two weeks dutifully reporting every aspect of the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. But while they were doing that, chat on the internet was dominated by two rather more sensational stories - about marginalised members of society who weren't represented at these meetings.

It came as a welcome shock when Phoenix TV announced it would start broadcasting the first TV show aimed at the mainland's gays, in April. This was the biggest sign yet that the homosexual community is slowly coming out of the shadows they've long been consigned to. The show, to be called Same-Sex Get-Together, will be presented by an openly gay host.

That in itself is radical, as there are no gay or lesbian celebrities of note in mainland China. That's perhaps not so surprising, since it wasn't until 2001 that the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

Long ignored by the traditional media, the gay and lesbian community on the mainland was quick to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet. There are now many websites offering friendship, help and support. But open gatherings - except in the handful of gay clubs in the mainland's major cities - are still frowned on by the authorities. In December 2005, the police shut down Beijing's first gay and lesbian festival before it even started.

There's little doubt, though, that the 'old' media are becoming less shy about covering gay issues. Li Yinhe , China's most famous sexologist and a CPPCC member, previously proposed legalising same-sex marriage. When she revealed on her blog last month that officials had pressured her to tone down her comments on gay rights and sex in general, papers including the Southern Metropolis Daily sprang to her defence.

Just as the news of Phoenix's show emerged, another marginalised group of people set off a furious war of words among netizens. The mainland's severely ill and disabled are rarely seen, let alone heard. So when a cancer victim named Li Yan used her blog to call on the NPC to pass a law allowing euthanasia, it started a debate that is still going.

Ms Li, a 28-year-old from Ningxia Autonomous Region , has had cancer since she was six and has lost all control of her motor functions. Now she wants to die with a semblance of dignity. Ms Li's case was publicised on Sina.com, and she has received strong support from CCTV presenter Chai Jing on her blog.

Netizens, though, were torn: some say people should have the right to choose to die; others caution that legalising euthanasia, or an le si, would allow doctors and people unwilling to care for their terminally sick relatives to shun their responsibilities.

The mainland's expensive and far-from-comprehensive health-care system was widely criticised at the NPC session. Meanwhile, rising rates of HIV infection suggest there's a need for the authorities to be more open about the presence of gays.

Until now, the internet has been the only forum for two little-acknowledged communities to express their voices. It surely won't be long before the NPC and CPPCC have to start discussing the issues that affect them.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist