What you need to know
Weibo failed to apologize for its ban on LGBT content and celebrating the reversal of its decision will do nothing to shake public apathy in China.
Last Friday (April 13), Sina Weibo, China's leading microblogging site, announced a cleanup of content hosted on its platform in the interests of a “sunny and harmonious online environment.”
As has become something of a trend when it comes to online media companies “cleaning” the internet in compliance with draconian new regulations, alongside pornography and violence, “homosexuality” was on Sina’s hit-list.
Within hours, the hashtags #IAmGay and #ImAFriendToGays were trending. By the next day, these hashtags, having accumulated 240 million views, were purged along with some 50,000 posts, 100 accounts and 60 trending topics. Thousands of LGBT Chinese wrote letters to Sina’s chairman, Charles Chao, telling their personal stories and demanding that the platform reopen itself to their contributions.
“Our clean-up of games and animation will no longer target gay content”, ran the blithe statement. “Thank you for the discussion and suggestions.”
A cheer went up across the blogosphere. Some called it a victory.
A dear friend of mine, a lifelong queer rights campaigner and founder of PFLAG China, phrased it differently.
“This was a victory for us, but not a defeat for Weibo.”
Precisely. Weibo didn’t feel the need to apologize. It presented its climbdown as a simple tweaking of an otherwise sound concept, and cast itself as a public-spirited organization willing to listen to its customers. They haven’t reinstated the content purged during the crackdown, nor is there any indication that they intend to do so.
The antecedents of online content purges are chicken-and-egg – was Weibo’s move a pre-emptive attempt to avoid an even more heavy-handed, government-directed sweep, or a considered response to a pre-existing official directive?
We’ll never know. But mark my words: We haven’t heard the end of this.
Since I relocated here permanently in 2008, I have observed a gradual softening of public attitudes, most notably among the young, towards LGBT people. Incremental steps in law, in entertainment and even in the news media seemed to show that these attitudes were spreading beyond the private realm. The latest figures, compiled by the Beijing Gender Health Institute in partnership with UNDP, however, don’t indicate that the majority of Chinese have a favorable attitude towards gay people. Simply put, and my own experience bears this out, most people don’t care.
Public apathy is why it’s hard to feel reassured by the Weibo climbdown. Another concern is complacency among urbanized, young Chinese, both gay and straight, who seem to believe that a future of total sexual equality and the legalization of gay marriage in China are a fait accompli. It’s happened in Taiwan, the argument goes. We don’t need a movement. We don’t need to take to the streets. We’ve got Songkran, Blued and pirate downloads of U.S. reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Apathy and complacency is a seductive, destructive combination.
It’s not unreasonable to imagine that the Communist Party and the government – overwhelmingly male, ethnically Han and over 50, will reflect the values of their particular demographic. Sure, there’ll be LGBT people in their ranks – the bulk of whom will have lived a miserable life in an iron-forged closet they have no hope of ever escaping. Invisibility of LGBT people in the corridors of power, in mainstream entertainment and in public life will help to feed prejudice, inform policy and further disincentivize political consideration of sexual minorities.
Could it also be that, despite youth support and general public indifference, gay “culture” is viewed as potentially threatening to the broad, homogeneous narrative espoused by each successive Chinese administration since the founding of the People’s Republic? It’s remarkable that a nation of 1.4 billion people representing dozens of ethnic groups, dialects and unique cultures projects an image of cookie-cutter uniformity to both the world and its own people. Queers don’t and can’t easily fit in to the model village as designed, which makes us a potential annoyance.
Of course, China could develop the infrastructure to support gay marriage and alternative families, and encourage queer Chinese to live, work and, ultimately, conform like anyone else. If China’s commercial sector has embraced the rainbow, why not the state?
Such a course of action would need broad, vocal support. Granting LGBT people equal rights – including to marry and have children eligible for full citizenship – has implications for hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, and would require several major legislative changes and a top-down reform of civil administration, a shakeup on a par with historic earthquakes such as legalized divorce, outlawing bigamy and the One Child Policy. It could also trigger a wave of family breakups across the country, as queer partners trapped in unwanted or cosmetic marriages split from long-suffering straight spouses.
Queers don’t and can’t easily fit in to the model village as designed, which makes us a potential annoyance.
The political will to unleash such seismic shifts amidst the biggest political transformation embarked upon since Reform and Opening-up in the late ‘70s won’t be kindled by happenstance. Only visibility will save China’s LGBT population from marginalization or outright oppression. #IAmGay is a powerful hashtag, and coming out publicly – not just in one’s private, urban double life but in rural hometowns, workplaces and on live TV – is the only effective weapon left to minorities in an increasingly authoritarian surveillance state. Militancy and public protest will guarantee a crackdown. Queers must take to Weibo, WeChat and [Chinese video streaming site] Youku, shouting #IAmGay from the digital rooftops until everyone in China knows a queer person, or an ally. E pluribus unum [out of many, one].
As this weekend has shown, the platforms upon which this last stand can be taken may not be open to us forever.
Editor: David Green