ChinaFile – 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
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.”
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