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  • Human Rights Research Center

Where to go? Queer-targeted Chinese censorship and New Strategies

Author: Vivian Sun

May 23, 2024



Social Media and the Banning of Homosexual Content Under Chinese Censorship

 

Social media and online communities have long provided the main space for Chinese queers. Unlike in several developed countries where the queer movement is mainly pushed forward through the legislative process, LGBTQ+ individuals in China, constrained by a uniform political system, are forced to express themselves and promote rights through social media. Online communities provide individuals with opportunities to discuss political issues, participate in human rights advocacy, exchange information regarding new policies, seek emotional support, and develop intimate relationships. Among these online platforms, Sina Weibo stands out as one of the largest social networking websites in China. Similar to Twitter, it allows users to engage in micro-blogging and social networking, allowing the posting of pictures and short sentences. Additionally, Sina Weibo presents a list of trending topics, facilitating discussions on a wide range of subjects, leading to it becoming the main platform for activists to promote LGBTQ+ rights in China.

 

However, since the 2010s, the Chinese government has increasingly imposed internet censorship and prohibitions on major social media platforms regarding sensitive information on LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, religion, pornography, violent imagery, and hate speech. Internet censorship progresses by prohibiting users from posting related content, issuing warnings to users about sensitivity, and officially deleting targeted content. The Golden Shield Project, also known as the Great Firewall, aids China in blocking foreign websites and search engines, including Google. Initially, it functions as an automated detection system for users browsing prohibited websites but later evolves into a comprehensive surveillance system, incorporating both digital detection of sensitive content and human censors, while also encouraging mutual reporting among platform users. In the wake of the Chinese government’s online “cleansing” campaign, a regulation published in 2012 banned users from posting “illegal and harmful information” in the community, including content which “harms national security, incites unlawful assembly and advocates violence and eroticism.” This regulatory framework not only marked a significant shift in online governance, but also served as a precursor to the expansion of surveillance systems across all social networking and micro-blogging apps, including Wechat, Little Red Book (Xiao Hongshu) and Douyin (TikTok in its Chinese version). Comments in video apps such as Bilibili were also facing the risk of deletion if considered “non-appropriate”.

 

In the increasingly conservative political environment, official censorship begins to target the LGBTQ+ community. Since 2016, mainstream media has systematically erased depictions of homosexuality. Under official censorship guidelines, agencies like the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television deemed same-sex relationships as “abnormal,” warranting their inclusion in the list of prohibited and surveilled content. In 2017, the China Netcasting Services Association, a state-approved industry body, further exacerbated the situation by officially banning portrayals of homosexuality in online broadcasting. Consequently, public queer film festivals completely disappeared after 2018, and online streaming platforms, traditional sites of the circulation and exhibition of Chinese and overseas queer films, fell under severe censorship and regulation. Today, most offline film events are either invite-only or held by foreign embassies. Adding to this repressive environment, LGBT Rights Advocacy China, a prominent organization involved in several legal cases regarding LGBTQ+ rights, ceased operations after dozens of LGBTQ+ accounts run by university students were deleted from the WeChat platform.

 

A Prominent Case: The Disappearance of Homosexual Web Series

 

In the process of banning LGBTQ+ content from mainstream social media, the disappearance of online male homosexual series, also known as boys’ love (BL) or danmei in Chinese, serves as the most prominent case of the government’s action against gay movements. In 2018, Tianyi, a famous Chinese writer specializing in creating danmei content, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the production and sale of pornographic materials regarding homosexuality. This was accompanied by the removal of the web series, The Guardian, from Youku (a prominent video platform in China) in 2018. After facing strong discontent from fans, it reappeared a few days later with several romantic scenes between the two male characters deleted. On September 2, 2021, the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) issued a formal document named, “Notification on Carrying Out Comprehensive Management of the Field of Culture and Entertainment”, banning the Danmei TV series altogether. Later, Xinhua News Agency published a series of feature articles criticizing the danmei TV series using words such as “sissy pants” (niangpao). This was supported by the Beijing Municipal Radio and Television Bureau (BMRTB) afterwards in its official statement.


 

Why Does the Chinese Government Strive to Keep LGBTQ+ Activism Marginalized?

 

The Chinese government’s specifically targeted campaigns were based on several factors.

 

●        The Chinese government characterizes itself as bearing the burden of promoting socialist gender values and guiding the next generation. Traditional Chinese culture has long emphasized masculinity as the main characteristic of males, forming the basis for arguments against perceived ‘over-feminization’ and advocating for the reshaping of aesthetic standards within mainstream Chinese culture. This perspective aligns with a paternalist discourse where the government positions itself as an “instructor” tasked with guiding teenagers towards “correct cultural values”. An analysis of articles published by state media and official government documents revealed a prevalence of terms such as “healthy internet environment”, “healthy development of teenagers”, “healthy aesthetics”, and “healthy gender expressions”. The frequent use of the term “healthy” reflects the government's conservative attitude, despite homosexuality no longer being classified as a mental disorder for several decades. Furthermore, the Chinese government reinforces patriarchal politics emphasizing the importance of “real” men as masculine, daring, and aggressive while highlighting the perceived detrimental effects of “over-feminized” male character.

 

●        The Chinese government pays attention to marriage and childbearing. China’s Family Planning Association, which is a government-led organization, announced pilot projects to promote a “new-era” culture of marriage and childbearing in over 20 Chinese cities on the same day of the shutdown of the Beijing LGBT Center. This reflects the government’s perception of the LGBTQ+ movement as a challenge to issues such as an aging population, low birth rate, and the declining interest of Chinese youth in traditional marriage. In an effort to boost the country’s birth rate, policymakers have transitioned from the one-child policy and forced abortions to implementing a third-child policy and advocating for single women’s reproductive rights. However, these measures not only reflect the government’s attitude towards the LGBTQ+ movement, but it also contributes to stagnating, and possibly even declining, gender equality in China.

 

●        The social norms and public attitudes toward LGBT+ generally remain conservative: Although LGBTQ+-targeted regulations were generally attributed to the political environment in China, lack of public support towards LGBTQ+ rights were commonly cited by speakers of the government to justify the policies. Surveys conducted among Sina Weibo users reveal prevalent opposition to the legalization of homosexuality in China, with some users expressing concerns about its potential societal impact, such as, “the extinction of the human species.” Moreover, the study also shows that Chinese netizens consider the deletion of online sensitive content as a compromise between the platform and social norms which “sacrifices the interests of its marginalized users in part to avoid public criticism”.

 

Self-Censorship Under Government Regulations

 

Under the Chinese government’s restricted online regulations concerning “sensitive” content, including LGBTQ+ expression, there has been a notable narrowing of online safe spaces for Chinese LGBTQ+ individuals. Due to internet censorship, there has been a shift from a robust willingness to self-expression on social media to witnessing deletions and warnings from platform organizers and thus being forced to stop sharing any related content. Prior studies have found that social media users felt personally targeted by censorship and were forced to engage in self-censorship including checking the existence of “sensitive” content before posting, using techniques such as mosaic (using stickers or figures to cover the “sensitive” wordings) when posting, changing the visibility of posts to friend-only, or deleting content upon receiving warnings from platforms. To avoid surveillance, users creatively use slang and emojis to avoid directly touching upon “sensitive” content and used homophones for words on block lists. Additionally, bloggers and official accounts with significant followings exhibited heightened caution, often manually monitoring comments, and privately engaging with users to prompt the removal of “sensitive” content or, in the most extreme circumstances, directly remove content on their own.

 

Looking for New Strategies and Spaces

 

Unlike typical social media users who face restrictions on posting hate speech and violent content, LGBTQ+ users are forced to cease discussions about their identities and aspirations, losing their primary avenue for emotional resonance. With the loss of opportunities to advance China’s queer movement through offline events or social media expression, Chinese LGBTQ+ individuals are forced to find new strategies and spaces to share ideas.

 

The first strategy to bypass censorship is using humor, puns, and coded language. For example, Chinese netizens use the word Tong Xun Lu (address book) to replace “homosexuality” as both words have the same initial letters in Chinese. Additionally, to avoid being detected by platform organizers, individuals often resort to using letters and numbers including “T”, “P”, “1” and “0” as substitutes for “lesbian” and “gay”. These usages become widespread and integrated into the lexicon that almost all social media users could recognize and understand. As a result of the popularity of alternative languages, today’s LGBTQ+ individuals have generally found ways to express casual ideas with no restrictions compared to when government censorship campaigns were initially launched. Yet, such expressions are commonly only related to casual sex or entertainment and still fell short of engaging in discussions about LGBTQ+ rights and human rights advocacy.

 

Other uncensored ways for LGBTQ+ individuals to express themselves are through dating apps, invite-only online chat rooms, and private messaging. In 2012, Ma Baoli (often known as Geng Le), founded a mobile social app tailored for gay men called Blued, which rapidly gained popularity within the gay community. With over 54 million users worldwide as of November 2020, Blued functions similarly to Grindr, utilizing GPS to connect users based on proximity. This helped gay men look for casual sex and communicate with others with similar identities, letting them have a place to at least temporarily “be themselves”. Beyond dating apps, LGBTQ+ individuals also create or join invite-only groups, which was most commonly seen in the lesbian communities. These groups serve as havens from social media censorship and facilitate discussions on feminism, which was also attacked by mainstream discourse. Moreover, private messaging has become instrumental for sharing day-to-day experiences related to sexual orientation and seeking help when in mental health crises.

 

However, unlike most social media users who simply need spaces to express ideas and look for emotional support, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) relying on social media to raise funds and advocate for policy change face increasingly severe challenges under government censorship. Due to the conservative attitude of the government, soliciting funds and lobbying for policy changes have already become nearly impossible. Consequently, NGOs encounter strict online surveillance, leading to the removal of their content on “sensitive” topics by platform administrators. Persisting in posting such content often results in account suspensions and erasing all past articles, making them inaccessible to readers. This was exemplified on July 7, 2021, when dozens of top universities’ WeChat LGBTQ+ accounts were abruptly shut down. Amid these risks, one way for LGBTQ+ NGOs to survive on social media was through changing their targets from LGBTQ+ legal rights to discussions about parent-child relationships of LGBTQ+ individuals. Trueself (formerly PFLAG China), one of the oldest LGBTQ+ NGOs in China, adopts this approach. A decade ago, their official website bravely addressed topics like same-sex marriage, LGBTQ+ health rights, and related legislation. However, present-day content on its official WeChat account and website only revolves around bridging intergenerational gaps post-coming out and how to help parents understand sexual identities. This strategic shift aligns with the socialist family values emphasizing “harmony”. As the largest LGBTQ+ NGO in China and one of the few NGOs still active in social media, its transition and new focus suggested how today’s LGBTQ+ NGOs tackle internet censorship and find new ways to promote LGBTQ+ rights.

 

Conclusion: For Social Media Users and LGBTQ+ NGOs, Where to Go?

 

When offline social events become almost impossible and internet expressions faced increasing restrictions, LGBTQ+ individuals in China have to find new spaces such as dating apps and private chat rooms. Along with this, they create cyber languages to avoid censorship and discuss LGBTQ+ topics in a new way. Despite these strategies, it is clear that mainstream discussion regarding LGBTQ+ rights have disappeared, and individuals are forced to steer clear of politics and focus more on everyday sexual topics. This shift away from mainstream discourse on LGBTQ+ rights, including public policy and legislation, is also reflected in the transitions of formerly active LGBTQ+ NGOs. In today’s society, the only viable way to promote LGBTQ+ rights through social media are by catering to the mainstream discourse rooted in Chinese social-family values. Existing efforts from activists have molded today’s queer movement in China, with compromise, creation, disappointments, and developments.


 

Glossary


  • Aesthetics: A branch of philosophy that deals with the nature, appreciation, and critique of beauty, art, and taste.

  • Aging population: A demographic phenomenon characterized by an increasing proportion of elderly individuals within a society relative to younger age groups. This shift occurs due to longer life expectancies, declining birth rates, and improvements in healthcare and living standards.

  • Chinese socialism: The unique blend of socialist principles and market-oriented reforms that characterize the economic and political system of the People’s Republic of China. Since the late 1970s, China has undergone significant economic transformation under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), transitioning from a centrally planned economy to a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics.

  • Government-led organization: An entity or institution that is established, funded, and operated by a government or governmental authority. These organizations typically serve specific purposes related to public service, policy implementation, regulation, or administration.

  • Micro-blogging: A form of blogging that allows users to post brief text updates, often limited to a certain number of characters. This format is typically associated with platforms like Twitter and Sina Weibo, where users can share short messages, thoughts, links, images, and videos with their followers in real-time.

  • Netizen: A term that combines "internet" and "citizen" and refers to a person who actively participates in online communities and discussions, particularly on social media platforms and other websites. Netizens engage in various online activities such as posting comments, sharing content, discussing news and events, and interacting with others in virtual communities.

  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs): Private, non-profit organizations that operate independently of government control and are often driven by social, environmental, or humanitarian goals.

  • Paternalism: A governing or managerial approach in which authority figures or institutions make decisions or provide guidance for individuals or groups with the belief that they are acting in the best interest of those individuals or groups, often without their explicit consent.

  • Sina Weibo: A Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter. It was launched by Sina Corporation in 2009 and has become one of the largest social media platforms in China. 

  • Socialism: A political and economic ideology that advocates for collective or governmental ownership and control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods and services.

  • Third-child policy: The three-child policy, announced in May 2021, allows couples in China to have up to three children. This relaxation of restrictions is aimed at addressing demographic challenges, including an aging population and a shrinking workforce. The decision to implement the three-child policy reflects the Chinese government's recognition of the need to encourage population growth while balancing concerns such as gender equality, women's rights, and the economic impact of family planning policies.


 

Sources


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