Online outcry forces China’s Twitter, Weibo, to backtrack on censorship of gay content
LGBT advocates call on company’s shareholders to dump stock and Communist Party’s official newspaper urges tolerance of homosexuals
China’s version of Twitter, Weibo, has reversed a ban on gay content after an outcry accused the company of smearing homosexuality by lumping it with pornography as it tried to meet government censorship rules.
On Friday Weibo said it would remove pornographic, violent or gay videos and cartoons in a three-month campaign, singling out a genre of manga animations and comics that often depict raunchy gay male relationships.
In response, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) advocates poured online to criticise the decision using hashtags, open letters and even calls to dump parent company Sina’s shares.
On Monday, Sina backtracked and said the clean-up would no longer target homosexual content.
The outcry reflects a fear that growing censorship tends to ban all gay content as “dirty”, a setback for efforts to carve out an online space of tolerance for homosexuality in China’s traditionally Confucian society, LGBT advocates say.
It was unclear whether Sina’s move was a direct result of a censorship directive from the government or an initiative taken by the company itself. Sina did not respond to a request for comment.
People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, on Sunday encouraged tolerance towards gay people, but added that “vulgar” content must be removed regardless of sexual orientation.
Chinese LGBT advocates hope to promote gay rights by educating society about sexual preferences and pushing back against traditional pressures to marry and have children.
Social media is a key “battlefield” where LGBT advocates take on conservative celebrities who dish out popular dating advice, such as saying that the best couples marry early, produce sons and are straight, according to Xiao Tie, head of the Beijing LGBT Centre.
“The problem with the policy is that it equates LGBT content with porn,” Xiao said, adding that she believes the government is not actively anti-LGBT, it just has no clear idea how to deal with the issue.
“But the bigger problem is the culture of strict censorship,” she added. “Social media used to be an open space, but in the last year things have started to change.”
Sina said the campaign was to ensure that the company was in line with online content regulations released in June last year that lump homosexuality in with sexual abuse and violence as constituting “abnormal sexual relationships”.
The fight against Sina’s decision saw LGBT groups, advocates and gay Chinese go online en masse to speak out.
The hashtag “I am gay” was viewed nearly 300 million times on Weibo before being censored on Saturday.
On Sunday, Beijing-based advocacy group PFLAG China called on Sina’s shareholders to punish the “evil” acts of the Nasdaq-listed company by “voting with their feet” and selling shares.
Other gay Chinese wrote their own stories in letters to the CEO of Sina, Charles Chao.
One of the writers, Hao Kegui, came out as a lesbian in an open letter published on social media last year where she described how she had felt pressured into marrying a man to please her parents.
“The main concern for me is that, because China is very big, and places outside big cities are quite conservative, there are lots of gay people who only learn about their sexuality online,” Hao said.
“I worry the censorship will cause more people to just live in the closet and never come out.”