Homosexuality, Social Media Activism and the Future of a Queer China

A new policy of banning homosexuality related content announced by Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese language social media platform, has recently triggered heated public debates about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights; it also reveals the complex media landscape and power relations in China and raises the question of the future of a queer China.

Media Censorship and Social Media Activism

On 13 April 2018, Sina Weibo announced the start of a three-month crackdown on comics, games, and short videos that had violated the platform’s regulations, including those containing pornography, violence, and homosexuality. Although this was not the first time for LGBTQ issues to be banned in Chinese media, what makes the recent event ‘new’ is the public reaction and the response of China’s mainstream media to the announcement.

Immediately after the announcement of the ban, the decision quickly drew opposition from different civil society groups in China and it triggered a wave of online protests. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of netizens protested against the move, using hashtags such as #iamgay, #iamgaynotapervert, and #scumbagsinahelloiamgay. Some users posted pictures of rainbows and some gay couples shared their personal photos to support LGBTQ rights.

On 15 April, China’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, published an opinion article in Chinese via its social media platform, emphasising the national consensus to show respect to all sexual orientations and protect their legal rights. The article drew attention to the fact that homosexuality was removed from the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (3rd edition) in 2001; it also notes that all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, have the same responsibilities and will be punished under the same law when they pursue their legal rights. Although the article primarily comments on another issue, i.e. inclusion of homosexuality in school sex education textbooks, the time of publication and its explicit mention of LGBTQ rights can be seen as a response to the Sina Weibo ban on homosexuality.

The following day, Weibo announced that it would stop including homosexuality-related content in the crackdown campaign but will continue to target violence and pornography. The decision was welcomed by netizens and was seen as yet another success achieved by the LGBTQ community against media censorship. One Weibo user simply commented ‘#lovewins’.

Media commentators have noted the important role that social media and online protests played in the process. Networked activism, or hashtag activism, carried out by activists and ordinary netizens alike, is often seen to have transformed the political and media landscape worldwide, and China is no exception.

I would, however, caution against the techno-optimism and media-centrism embedded in the celebration of hashtag activism and ‘social media revolution’. Social media does not make ‘revolutions’; people do. Social changes are often made in specific historical contexts and involving complex negotiation of power relations. To gain a better understanding of the issue in question, i.e. the ‘success’ of the online protests which enables the reversal of a ban, we need to think about two interrelated issues: (1) how to understand media in China and (2) how power and governance work in China today.

Understanding Chinese Media

‘Chinese media’ have traditionally been seen as a singular and coherent entity: they are seen as the ‘mouthpieces’ of, and strictly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. With the emergence of citizen media and social media, ‘Chinese media’ are often seen in binary terms: traditional media versus social media, representing respectively the interests of the state and the civil society. In such a context, social media platforms are seen to carry the ‘genuine’ voices of ordinary people and they have become sites of contestation that challenge mainstream media and state power. Of course, such a discourse is deeply flawed, because social media can also be manipulated by the state in order to conform to official ideologies, often by consent instead of by coercion. Similarly, ‘mainstream media’ can also articulate alternative and different voices, some of which do not always conform to official ideologies. More importantly, with Chinese media going global and commercial, media platforms in China are embedded in multiple and sometimes divergent power relations as well as political and economic interests. All this makes China’s media landscape increasingly complex, diverse and fragmented.

It is hard to know why the People’s Daily, as the mainstream and official media in China, published the opinion piece defending LGBTQ rights and condemned the practices of a social media organisation. The opinion piece is likely to have been authorised by China’s media regulator. Some interpreted the move as the Party-state’s ‘stick and carrot’ approach to sexual minorities. This case demonstrates the often incoherent and even fragmentary nature of Chinese media. Commercial media such as Sina have different interests from official media such as the People’s Daily. Even within the People’s Daily, its newspaper version and online version, Chinese version and English version, have different degrees of journalistic freedom. Media in China has many things to negotiate: state policy, audience response, commercial gain, market competition, domestic and international politics … censorship is simply one of them. It is possible that the public outcry against the ban of homosexuality played a role in the process; as did the international coverage of the ban which put considerable pressure on China’s domestic policy. The result can best be seen as the temporary solution of such negotiations within a specific historical context. This does not guarantee more LGBTQ rights or preclude less banning of LGBTQ content in the future. In fact, with China’s recent media organisation reforms, which put all media organisations directly under Party control, the state’s administrative and ideological control over media is likely to be tighter.

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New Ways of Governance

From the changing attitudes towards homosexuality in Chinese media, we can also see the changing emphasis of state governance in China: from the prohibition of ‘wrong behaviours’ to encouragement of ‘right practices’. Prohibition and encouragement can exist at the same time and used by the same Party-state; they both combine to define the moral order and create consensus within a society.

If we look at the banned issues, including violence and pornography, they both suggest a sex-negative attitude and they both have a strong moral implication. In the context of Chinese social media, violence and pornography are not clearly defined, but they can often be broadly understood as encompassing a wide range of issues including depictions of sex and sexuality (gay or straight), portrayal of gunshot, fights and murder etc. In practice, they are often interpreted broadly to censor a wide range of cultural practices and media productions that cross the ‘official lines’. For example, Boys’ Love (BL) or Girls’ Love (GL) stories may be subject to censorship because of their explicit depiction of sex despite the removal of homosexuality from the ban. Independent films and online videos can still be banned because of their realistic representation of sensitive topics such as sex work, police brutality and street fighting. Removing homosexuality from the ban does not necessarily entail an open attitude towards sex and social issues.

In other words, the purpose of the ban is to create a conservative moral order in the society. LGBTQ groups happen to be situated in an ambiguous zone: on the one hand, homosexuality is officially no longer treated as a mental disorder in China (although gay ‘conversion therapy’ is still practiced in different parts of the country); on the other, same-sex practices can still not be openly represented online because of the ban on broadly defined and often misused categories of ‘violence’ and ‘pornography’. As the People’s Daily opinion notes:

‘However, all violators, regardless of their sexual orientation, will be punished under the same law in the nation. It is also an agreed principle in the society that all citizens must shoulder the same responsibility when they pursue their legal rights.’

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This is coercive and productive power put to work in order to keep a conservative moral order and to consolidate the rule of the Party-state. It would be naïve to see this as a recognition of LGBTQ rights in China, but the emphases on ‘responsibility’ and ‘rights’ are significant, and this symbolises changing ways of state governance in China: from prohibition to encouragement. If the emphasis was solely on ‘don’t do something otherwise you will be punished’ in the past; such a negative attitude still exists but the emphasis switches to positive incentives such as ‘do something and you will be rewarded’. The purpose is to consolidate state power and to create a conservative moral order within the society. The second approach seems more benign, encouraging and effective.

We should also note that although homosexuality is not seen as a mental disorder, only certain gay identities are encouraged: they are mostly middle-class, cosmopolitan, closeted, well-educated and well-paid, the ‘good citizens’ with ‘qualities’. As the gentrified strata of the LGBTQ community increasingly gain more access to state recognition, the majority of the community who do not fit into these norms continue to be denied their rights of existence and freedom of expression.

Here we see the state governing rationale as constructing normal citizens and punishing abnormal citizens at the same time. As China is adopting neoliberal governmentality, new forms of governance, with their emphases on individualism, consumerism and middle-class respectability, coexist with the Leninist-Maoist mode of governmentality of punishing ‘enemies of the people’. With the development of the market economy and the persistence of the Party-state power in China, LGBTQ people are likely to have more commercial and private spaces but limited political spaces in the future.

In short, participation in social media activism may not necessarily directly lead to social changes; but it can form part of the assemblage that enables social changes. As we reject media-centrism and techno-determinism in imagining a social media revolution that brings us LGBTQ rights, we should equally be critically cautious of the normalising pull of homosexuality in an increasingly neoliberal society legitimised by the Party-state, with imperatives for conformity, consumption, and conservative moral orders.

Hongwei Bao is Assistant Professor in Media Studies and Resident Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on gay identity, queer filmmaking and LGBTQ activism in contemporary China. He is the author of the book Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China. This article was inspired by the lively discussions at the ‘Voices of Struggle: LGBTQ & Feminist Activism in China and Beyond’ Research Workshop held at the University of Göttingen on 17-18 April 2018. Image credit: CC by nancydowd/Pixabay.


–This article originally appeared on China Policy Institute