Desire to promote gay rights keeps Chinese in the motherland

Young Beijinger worked in finance and could have emigrated but decided to stay in China to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:04am

Jiang Jianlong, 31, lives what most Beijingers would consider a privileged life. He works for a private-equity firm that invests in luxury businesses in Europe. He speaks French, enjoys wine and appreciates contemporary art.

He spent several years in Africa and Europe. And while many mainlanders with such a background might seek to emigrate, Jiang has chosen to stay in China. He wants to bring about change in his homeland and improve the rights of gay people, like himself.

How did you end up in Africa?

I suffered major depression after graduating from Peking University, where I studied French and economics. I was depressed because I had some unpleasant experiences while trying to organise a gay film festival.

I resented having to do what the government wanted and I felt a deep hatred towards society in general.

Also, the fact that someone whom I loved could not return that love didn't help. So I felt I wanted to get out and be somewhere totally different.

I found two Africa-based jobs at state-owned Chinese companies: one for an oil company in Nigeria, the other for a construction firm in Algeria. I picked the Algeria one because people told me the country was safer, and also because I spoke French.

Did you have friends there?

No, not at all. Who from China would have friends far away in Africa? I met some good friends after being there for a while, of course.

What did you do in Algeria? Did you like it?

It was really boring. I helped submit tenders for the building of hotels, dykes and other buildings, including government offices.

Mostly, they were projects financed by Chinese loans and built by Chinese companies. There just wasn't much going on. I had a feeling people weren't very industrious and so maybe that's why the economy wasn't thriving.

Why did you go to France afterwards?

I did an MBA in Paris because the gay film festival that I was a small part of wasn't going very well and I thought that if I was able to work in the financial industry after business school I would have some spare cash to keep the festival going.

I told an organiser friend I would make 40 million yuan (HK$50.6 million) and half of that would go towards putting on gay events. Naïve, perhaps, but it was as simple as that.

Many Chinese people want to emigrate. Why did you come back?

Indeed. Like many Chinese people, I thought I'd never return to China because I found several good jobs after business school. But after a while - people had told me this and I confirm it's true - I realised I couldn't break through the glass ceiling above me, in terms of my career.

Being a foreigner, I could never really assimilate into society. Some would probably have settled for the somewhat more comfortable life overseas, but I wanted the challenge of establishing myself in China, and also to take up the cause of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights in China.

How has living abroad shaped you?

Many people in China think places like Europe and America are paradise. It's as if once you get out of China, all the problems of life will be solved.

I realised that that was very naive thinking after about six or seven years living overseas. Yes, the Chinese system is pretty awful, but I think the right thing to do is to try and repair the system, not run away.

Another thing I've learned is the importance of the arts, especially the ability to appreciate it, which can really help show who you are as a person. In China, thanks to the Communist Party, many people do nothing but work and sleep. They aren't allowed to do much else. They aren't even allowed to have religious beliefs. With the Cultural Revolution, many things were lost. That may explain why many people, without a guiding principle of life, have no core beliefs.

Do some people want to help China from afar?

Maybe, but that will not help as much as being here with my sleeves rolled up. It's great to get the support of foreign countries, as I did when I began organising the gay film festival, which was endorsed by foreign consulates, but that is never going to be enough to make a difference here. We saw that in 1989.

How serious is the problem of corruption in China?

No more serious than anywhere else. The only difference is the form it takes in different places. Rich families and their businesses get into a clique and their kids go to the best schools in the West, but in China cash is directly offered and accepted in exchanges between businessmen and government officials. You have to admit the problem is not as serious as before, though.

How did you realise you were gay?

I used to be interested in girls at secondary school and I did make an effort to impress them. I was also interested in boys, so I thought I was bisexual. But as I found out more about myself, I realised I was gay.

How is the gay rights movement progressing in China?

It's in its infancy. Events have to be low-key because you don't want to make the statement that gay rights need to be protected right in the party's face because it may be perceived as a protest.

Jiang Jianlong spoke with Adrian Wan