The closure of dozens of LGBT student organisations’ WeChat accounts this week may be the result of a larger Chinese nationalist backlash against perceived Western influences, according to cultural academics.
“There is a tendency in China for some people to relate homosexuality and LGBT people to Western lifestyles or capitalistic, bourgeois decadence, so this was in line with a moral panic,” said Hongwei Bao, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Nottingham and specialist in queer politics in China.
“Especially now, there’s tension between China-West relations, so there is likely to be a heightened sense of nationalism which sees LGBT issues, feminist issues, as Western, as unfit for China.”
Aynne Kokas, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and expert on US-China media and technology relations, said the idea that LGBT was a Western imported concept was “particularly troubling” because it could be “mobilised within the context of Chinese national security regulations”.
“If it’s Chinese people, then that’s harder to frame as a national security risk, and it becomes more of a government accountability question,” she said. “[But] if it’s outside Western groups that are agitating using LGBT groups, then that can be framed as a national security risk, and then there are a whole host of other laws that can then apply.”
A Western idea?
The concept of homosexuality has existed in Chinese culture long before the country had any major cultural interactions with the West.
In the southeastern province of Fujian, a form of gay “marriage” was prevalent enough that there was even a patron deity of homosexuality, the rabbit. Ancient Chinese poetry also carries many references to homosexual relationships.
Acceptance of LGBT individuals has varied historically. In 1979, consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex were banned under a law on “hooliganism”, with punishments ranging from imprisonment to execution.
China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, but same-sex marriage is still illegal and the topic remains taboo socially.
In March, a court upheld a ruling that a textbook description of homosexuality as “a psychological disorder” was not a factual error but merely an “academic view”.
A report in June found that members of the LGBT community were up to five times more likely to suffer depression than the general public, for reasons including loneliness, employment difficulties and identity anxiety.
Chinese state media has reported that around 70 million people in China – or 5% of the population – identify as LGBT, roughly equivalent to the 5.6% in the US, according to a Gallup poll from February.
Yet, those critical of the LGBT community have increasingly framed it as an example of Western influence. In these discussions, LGBT rights are seen as an imported concept, and social media censorship efforts as a way to combat an ideology incompatible with Chinese culture.
Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based vaccine expert, wrote on WeChat that foreign forces were trying to contain China “in the name of freedom, equality and love”, and one way they were doing this was to encourage the LGBT community.
“No matter how you view LGBTQI, when you see them at a Chinese campus, you wouldn’t applaud what Americans call ‘human rights’,” he wrote. “As a Chinese parent, most people would feel this is repellent and want authorities to ban them.”
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state-owned tabloid Global Times, wrote on Weibo that pressure from the relatives of LGBT people reflected deeply ingrained Chinese ideas that could not be made “politically correct”.
“It is impossible for China to get to the forefront of the world on this issue. Our certain degree of conservatism is inevitable and reasonable,” he wrote. “LGBT in China at this stage should not seek to become a high-profile ideology.”
Kokas, from the University of Virginia, said Chinese media censorship had escalated in recent years across a wide range of organisations, not just LGBT groups, with a particular focus on anything deemed to pose a risk to national security.
Under President Xi Jinping, there has been a tightening of control over civil societies in general, with a particular emphasis on promoting the Communist Party’s core socialist values, which include patriotism and “traditional” Chinese culture.
Huang Kunming, the head of the party’s propaganda department, has warned against the “seduction” of Western values, calling out some Western countries for using their “technological advantages and dominance of discourse … to peddle so-called universal values”.
In 2015, nearly 300 human rights activists and lawyers were held on suspicion of state subversion, months after five activists known as the “Feminist Five” were also detained for organising a protest against sexual harassment.
Earlier this year, several Chinese feminist channels on popular social networking forum Douban were also abruptly shut , with the platform reportedly citing extremism, and radical political views and ideological content. All foreign non-governmental organisations have had to register with the police since 2016.
An LGBT activist known as Xixi said the organisations shut down on WeChat this month were where students started learning about social activism and civil society, which she believed may be a reason they were deemed “dangerous”.
Student LGBT organisations contacted by the South China Morning Post did not respond or declined to comment, but Associated Press reported that the founder of one group said universities in Jiangsu province had been ordered by authorities to investigate women’s rights and sexual minority organisations to “maintain stability”.
This is not the first time the LGBT community has faced repression online.
In 2018, Weibo announced it would clean up accounts that “advertise pornography, violence and homosexuality”, resulting in close to 190,000 people using the hashtag “I am Gay” on Weibo in protest.
New internet rules introduced this year, which require self-publishers to apply for an official licence to publish current affairs content, also caused concern among LGBT groups that they would lose one of their last vestiges of free expression.
The reasons for the latest crackdown on student groups’ WeChat accounts are still unclear – neither Tencent nor the Cyberspace Administration of China responded to requests for comment – but Bao said given the sheer number of accounts shut down at the same time, it appeared to be a “planned and coordinated” action.
“In the past we’ve only seen the cracking down on individual societies. But this scale of cracking down on all student societies is unprecedented,” Bao said.
The crackdown was “very cleverly done” because it targeted the community’s main channel of communication, he said.
The internet has been the most important avenue for Chinese LGBT communities to advocate for their rights, given the difficulty of carrying out public debates and demonstrations when mainstream society has increasingly excluded them.
Kokas noted that the LGBT community had historically been effective at mobilising online, and targeting WeChat could have the “most significant material impact” on its ability to mobilise.
Most popular social media platforms are banned in China, where WeChat, which has over a billion annual users, is the main platform.
“[LGBT groups abroad] may have cross-platform interests, and there’s a possibility of migration. Within China, there is much less of an opportunity to do that because of the dominance of WeChat,” Kokas said.
Several of these student organisations had been inactive for months or even years, which fuelled speculation that the mass account closures had been instigated by the authorities.
The accounts that were active before they were shut down had also mainly posted apolitical, informational messages relating to the LGBT community.
Bao said the LGBT student groups were in a “Catch-22 situation” because they were technically unregistered – and therefore illegal – societies, but it was also almost impossible for a student group to obtain official recognition from a university. The supposed illegality of these organisations gave authorities a reason to take them down, he said.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday that the department was aware of the account closures and opposed the use of network restrictions by any country to suppress free speech. However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Thursday that the government simply “manages the internet in accordance with the law”.
On Weibo, netizens expressed support for the LGBT student organisations with the hashtag “unnamed official account”, in reference to the accounts whose names were removed after they were shut down.
“I have watched a certain country strictly guard against the LGBT community step by step,” one Weibo user wrote.
“From banning content without explanation, to labelling the LGBT community as a product of foreign forces, the era of big-character posters and the Red Guards does not seem to have gone far.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.