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China’s LGBT people are under pressure on a number of fronts as the country’s government continues with sweeping economic, social and education reforms. Photo: Handout

China’s LGBT community caught up in Xi Jinping’s widening crackdowns on big tech, education and celebrities

  • China’s regulatory crackdowns have targeted various sectors, including education and online platforms
  • LGBT people have been affected in myriad ways, from the banning of gay themes in film and TV to the specific targeting of individual activists and groups
On August 13 last year, the organisers of Shanghai’s long-running LGBT pride festival abruptly announced the event was being cancelled indefinitely without explanation. The news came as a shock to many as the event had run successfully, albeit quietly, for 11 years.

In a brief statement on its website titled “the end of the rainbow” the organisation said: “ShanghaiPRIDE regrets to announce that we are cancelling all upcoming activities and taking a break from scheduling any future events. We love our community, and we are grateful for the experiences we’ve shared together.”

No explanation was given as to why the event was cancelled. However, sources close to the organisation said that although there had been harassment over the years from the authorities the pressure had suddenly become so intrusive that organisers decided it was no longer safe to continue with the event.

It was a sign of things to come as China’s government began what has since evolved into sweeping crackdowns on a wide swathe of the country’s entertainment, tech, education and business sectors.

Amid the flurry of new regulations, restrictions and directives were a number specifically targeting China’s LGBT population; including the banning of LGBT social media accounts, increased censorship of discussion of LGBT issues online, gay university groups have been placed under pressure on campuses, attacks on gender identity with demands that men be macho alongside bans on “sissy” boys on television, and regulators being directed to ban “gay love” in video games.


China reportedly slows down online game approvals as crackdown on video game addiction continues

China reportedly slows down online game approvals as crackdown on video game addiction continues

Beijing is increasingly paranoid that big tech platforms are spreading views and ideas that run counter to traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity and are actively encouraging younger people to explore new gender identities and non-traditional forms of sexual expression.

In the past, state-controlled television stations and newspapers such as CCTV and China Daily were the main forms of media, so the state had a firm grasp on the content being produced. But with the rise of social media and online streaming, this is no longer the case.

According to Dr Shuaishuai Wang, a Lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, there has been an explosion in the past decade of new ideas and content on the country’s major video streaming sites owned by big tech companies that are outside direct state control.


China calls for boycott of ‘sissy idols’ and ‘overly entertaining’ stars

China calls for boycott of ‘sissy idols’ and ‘overly entertaining’ stars

“For the drama series, these video sites allow a content type called boys love, online fiction that depicts romance between two men, to flourish. Large online fan groups, including both women and gay men, emerge around these boys’ love dramas,” he told the Post.

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“For the talent shows, a lot of male contestants appear in unisex clothing and heavy make-up. Their styles are well received among young audiences. So this diverse culture and the challenge to the heterosexual order promoted by big tech companies are viewed as a threat by the authorities. So now, gender and sexuality are a new front in China’s campaign against big tech.”

Despite an earlier 2016 ban on expressions of same-sex love in film and television such as men kissing on screen or holding hands, many tech platforms found ways around the rules to cater to the increasing popularity of gender diverse and LGBT content.

A gay couple kisses during a party after a LGBT mass wedding organised by the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) China organisation on a cruise in open seas on route to Sasebo, Japan, 15 June 2017. Photo: EPA

Dr Wang said gender and sexual issues have long been used for political purposes in China, as it is seen as an effective tool for social mobilisation and building mass support for the central government.

“These policies do not target individuals, but the entertainment industry. For LGBT culture in general, it means continued negotiations with the government for visibility, it also means content producers need to constantly grapple with censorship,” he said.

Rewriting history to make LGBT a ‘Western’ import

One increasingly common narrative being pushed by government officials is that LGBT culture is a “Western” idea that was imported into China.

However, China has a long history of recognising and accepting homosexuality with some arguing it was early Christian missionaries that introduced the stigma against homosexuality to China.

Literature from the Ming and Liu Song dynasties often described the social acceptance of gay relationships.

Southern China in particular was well known for being tolerant towards same-sex relationships among men.

Shen Defu, a writer from the Ming dynasty period, wrote extensively about gay relationships and described them as being common, especially in Fujian province.

Dr Hongwei Bao, an expert in Asian LGBT studies from the University of Nottingham in the UK, said efforts to paint LGBT identity and issues as Western had increased in recent years as part of a wider drive to push back against outside influences by China’s government.

“Such a discourse relies heavily on nationalism, as it inevitably has to demarcate what is Chinese from what is not,” he told the Post.

“In this process, LGBT issues are unfortunately seen as Western, regardless of the long history of homoeroticism and gender variance in China.”

A brief flowering of freedom

There are an estimated 70 million Chinese people, about 5 per cent of the population, who identify as being LGBT.

China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, and in 2001, the authorities removed it from an official list of mental disorders.

Dr Bao said after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, there was a period of growing acceptance and tolerance of LGBT people in China.

Singer and actor Roy Wang Yuan of boy group TFBoys is one of a number of pop idols who do not strictly confirm to gender stereotypes in China. Photo: Getty

“Today, we not only see a proliferation of public expressions of LGBT identity, community and culture in urban China; we also see a rising consciousness of gender variance, sexual diversity and citizen rights — all of this was impossible to think about 30 years ago,” he said.

However, he said there has also been significant pushback against LGBT rights, even before the recent round of repression.

“The mainstream media could report on LGBT issues in the 2000s and this is now impossible. Young people could self-organise and campaign for LGBT rights and this has now been cracked down on and stopped. The public and discursive spaces for LGBT issues have been shrinking significantly in recent years,” he said.

China still lacks laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and same-sex marriage remains illegal, with Human Rights Watch describing the situation for LGBT people as precarious in its most recent country review.

LGBT people continue to face discrimination from family members, in the workplace and in wider society said Human Rights Watch which flagged as an area of concern the ongoing use of discredited “gay conversion” therapies by some hospitals in China.

A crisis of masculinity?

In February this year, China’s Ministry of Education announced new teaching methods in schools that would “cultivate masculinity” and improve schoolboys’ mental and physical health while the ministry “conducted further research”.

The move was widely seen as a response to top political adviser Si Zefu’s suggestion the previous year that the country needed to combat the increasing “feminisation” of young men who he described as “delicate, cowardly and effeminate”.

Gay rights campaigners act out electric shock treatment in a protest outside a court during the first court case in China involving so-called gay conversion therapy in 2017. Photo: AP

Si said the nation needed to “prevent young men from becoming effeminate”, he called for male teachers and blamed the problem on women — mothers, grandmothers and female teachers – who he said were spoiling boys.

In September China’s top media regulator announced a boycott of what it called “sissy idols”, among other new guidelines, during an ongoing “clean up” of the entertainment industry.

Authorities have been increasingly critical of the trend some refer to as “sissy men”, which include pop idols that wear make-up or who do not conform to macho male stereotypes prevalent in traditional Chinese culture. Some in China also see the popularity of such idols, often referred to as “little fresh meat”, as a threat to traditional social values.

Last month as part of a crackdown on gaming among China’s youth, there was a new directive banning the promotion of the “wrong set of values” including depictions of “gay love” and “effeminate men” in video games.

Bao said that the government is using nationalism in combination with patriarchal masculinity to take control of gender and sexuality, an area where it feels increasingly under threat.

Actress Zheng Shuang is just one of a number of celebrities targeted in a crackdown on the entertainment industry. Photo: Getty

“Gender and sexual minorities are often seen as deviant and alien because they do not support the country’s economic goals and principles of heterosexual reproduction,” he said.

“A specific type of hegemonic masculinity is valorised at the expense of other gender expressions and embodiments. In today’s China, where it sees itself as a superpower but is under siege in global geopolitics, this expression is particularly evident.

Universities targeted

In July, the WeChat accounts of dozens of LGBT student organisations across China were shut down permanently in a move that took the groups by surprise, triggering anger and fear within the LGBT community.

The accounts included those from top universities such as the Sex-Gender Study Community of Renmin University, Peking University ColorsWorld and the Shanghai-based Fudan University Zhihe Society.

A transgender performer during the preliminary round of Big Queen, a cross-dressing contest at the Icon Club in Shanghai in 2016. Many fear such events will become a thing of the past as China’s sweeping cultural crackdown continues. Photo: AFP
LGBT activist Xixi, who had taken a Chinese textbook publisher to court for describing homosexuality as a “psychological disorder”, told the Post she was shocked by the suddenness and the scale of the attack on university LGBT groups.

“In the mainland, universities rarely provide diversity education, and there is even homophobic content in teaching, and some LGBT students have experienced bullying,” she said. “These organisations are a place to provide shelter and support for confused LGBT students, their activities provide the role of gender equality education that’s missing.”

In August, LGBT activists and groups expressed alarm when Shanghai University asked its colleges to conduct surveys into students’ “state of mind” and investigate the political stance and psychological condition of students. Many saw this as an attempt to identify and document LGBT students. The university did not respond to requests for comment leaving the motivation behind the survey unclear, however many insisted it was aimed at LGBT students

Where to now?

China’s government is grappling with an uncertain global political-economic environment brought on by the China-US trade war, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and increasing anxiety about social, economic, and political stability, according to Bao.

He said the targeting of LGBT people is part of a broader reaction amid rising tension with the West which seeks to rewrite China’s own history in a bid to bolster nationalism and create long-term stability.

“The pushback against the rich and the famous and the crackdown on LGBT issues reflect the current Chinese government’s unease about globalisation,” he said.

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“In the past decades, China’s entry into the global capitalist economy has significantly improved the country’s wealth and people’s living standards; but it has also widened the social gaps between people from different classes and regions and caused much social unrest regarding the uneven distribution of wealth, threatening the CCP’s rule and its legitimacy.”

Wang from the University of Amsterdam said that LGBT people will continue to suffer as long as current policies attacking gender and sexual variation continue.

“My concern is that if policymakers continue using gender slurs to regulate the entertainment industry, where the target audience is mostly young people, it is very likely that gender-based bullying, harassment, and violence will increase in schools and workplaces; after all, if the government condones a slur, who’s to say it’s wrong to use it to attack others?”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: End of rainbow as LGBT community gets caught up in Xi crackdowns