Each year the formidable censorship system in China targets the LGBTQ and feminist communities. This year, Apple’s App Store in China removed 27 LGBTQ+-related apps. In fact, a research by China-based nonprofit organization, GreatFire – that tracks censorship in China – shows that only Saudi Arabia has more LGBTQ apps unavailable in their App Store. It is still unclear whether Apple was under pressure from the Chinese dispensation or was this move a preemptive market strategy.
iStore Is Not The First:
Giving in to strict censorship, China’s leading social media platform We Chat blocked several university LGBTQ accounts; and removed all content without offering any explanation. This move outraged many LGBTQ university students who were operating unofficially and clandestinely to avoid crackdown. For many years these fringe groups have been offering support to members and providing knowledge on LGBTQ issues. This sudden clampdown led to the removal of both open discussions and academic research available on the platform; upsetting small groups who had worked assiduously to create awareness.
Students from popular universities like Tsinghua University’s unofficial LGBTQ club Purple, Peking University’s unofficial LGBTQ club Colors World, Fudan University’s Zhiheshe were among the few targets. Many students were unable to log in to their accounts and received this message; “In response to related complaints, all content has been blocked for violating the ‘Regulations on the Management of Internet User Official Account Information Services.’
“And all usage of the account has been suspended.”
Social Media Lost Its Freedom As Well:
“It’s sad to see this happen in China. Mainstream media is already very tightly managed and now on social media the space has been squeezed. Imagine how hard it will get for young people to get more information in the future”, said Fan Popo, a documentary film maker and LGBT activist from China. Fan moved to Berlin after his documentary, “Mama Rainbow” got tangled in law suits; for exploring the idea of mothers coming to terms with sexual identities of their children.
“Having worked with these student groups on my documentary, I know how important their work is for people seeking information on the subject. And it’s upsetting to see this happening. Young people don’t have many places to express themselves. They don’t even give you a voice on social media now. Which is really sad for people who want information about sexual minority, sexual rotation and gender identity”, Fan said.
China Always Strived To Ban Gender Rights Activism:
These university students’ experience is not a one-off case. Chinese social media giants have often censored advocacy and gender rights activism on their platforms. In 2018, Weibo, under the garb of advocating a clean and harmonious public environment on media platforms, banned topics related to LGBT issues. Drawing nation wide criticism and public ire, it soon reversed the ban.
Even though China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, homophobia is rampant and it prevents individuals from coming out as gay or lesbian. Last month Li Yin, a popular soccer player and her partner had to delete their anniversary posts on Weibo. Not only the users on social media throw spiteful comments, but there was an increasing pressure on the soccer star to stop being vocal about her identity. Strict censorship is not limited to online platforms; because in 2018 Freddie Mercury’s biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody was released with a lot of caution which included the removal of gay scenes.
Homosexuality Equated To Hooliganism:
China’s opaqueness on LGBTQ rights has often confounded public discourse. “Ignoring the existence of LGBT community can also be considered homophobia. They (Chinese government) don’t even want you to exist in the society. They don’t want these groups to be visible to media and prevent them from having a voice on social media. There is a perception that people who belong to the LGBTQ community might become a problem in the traditional family construct. In fact, a lot of people are made to believe that homosexuality comes from western culture. But it’s also stupid because Chinese history has homoerotic stories. And same sex love was displayed quite indisputably”, said Popo.
For many years Chinese societies have been flooded with ideas equating homosexuality to hooliganism. In fact, to enforce spiritual reforms Deng Xiaoping made “hooliganism” a law in 1979. Even though the archaic law was struck down in 1997, negative attitude towards homosexuality remained largely unaffected.
The “Clean Up” In Full Swing:
Despite the challenges and pessimistic view points, LGBTQ communities continued to thrive in small groups across China. And from time to time these LGBTQ groups have put up a brave fight against bureaucratic structures and stringent policies curbing their rights. Over the years LGBTQ communities in China have gained momentum in establishing their identity and social relevance. Big Chinese cities have grown to accept flourishing gay scenes. But government control and censorship has often dismissed their legitimacy.
China’s “clean up” drive is in full swing; these incidents are testimony to the fact that China’s attitude towards building an equal society still remains a distant dream. State controlled social media giants act at the behest of authorities who want companies to adhere to strict censorship guidelines. Companies that fail to comply with policy directives either face severe penalties or complete shutdown. Although heightened censorship has always been a strong policy focus in China, these incidents are just part of the larger game.
Written & Edited By: Jessica Taneja