Chengdu, China – A week ago without warning, WeChat, a popular social networking platform in China, permanently suspended the official accounts of more than a dozen university LGBTQ groups, sparking a new round of debate on the country’s already threatened community .
The suspensions largely affected groups run almost entirely by students, including prestigious academic institutions such as Tsinghua and Beijing universities. The missions of the groups, according to their brief introductions, were to “advance gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities.”
Several students who manage the LGBTQ group’s accounts told Al Jazeera that they had not previously received any warning from the competent authorities about any possible suspension.
Mary, a student who participated in one of the suspended groups, says that while there had been “talks” on campus about regulating “groups that advocated for the rights of sexual minorities” for a few months before, nothing had materialized. .
“It was a surprise, but at the same time, not so much,” said Mary, who preferred not to use her real name for security reasons. “We knew the LGBT rights movement was hitting obstacles with each other in China, but we thought that at least by being affiliated with the university, we could be exempt from any overt repression.”
Like Mary, everyone else who spoke to Al Jazeera did so on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding LGBTQ issues.
These accounts are now labeled “unnamed official account” and a single message appears below: “All content has been censored for violating the account’s” Internet Official Account Information Service Management Policy ” All articles previously published on the platforms, have disappeared mainly on issues of gender and LGBTQ rights.
As in previous repressions in China, all effort to try to document the measure was soon also eliminated. Some accounts were suspended simply to compile a list of accounts that had been deleted.
Neither the government nor Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, have given explanations about the suspension.
People in the groups who escaped repression told Al Jazeera that they were preparing for the worst.
An employee of a prominent LGBTQ group said he had started making copies of all the articles published on his platform, which currently total more than 1,000. Another went to Taobao, China’s e-commerce platform and paid someone to download all the articles, with topics ranging from health to political rights advocacy, in various accounts that he feared could be the next goals of officials.
So far, only the online presence of groups has been stifled, but many groups are concerned that authorities may be prepared for broader repression of campus events and activities by LGBTQ groups. People like Mary say they are working hard to ensure that “other activities continue as planned.”
“This is a dark day for us, and I don’t know if I could do anything about it but contact my friends and comfort them,” Kevin told Al Jazeera, a gay man from Chengdu, after hearing the news.
The online crackdown on the community sparked a clamor on China’s social media.
Many expressed support for the groups, although they were concerned about the new invasion of civil society.
“After years of working in this organization and seeing my colleagues being questioned, censored and forced to delete articles, I will never forgive [country]”Said a person who worked in another group who had been the victim of censorship.
Some others expressed concern over the entire state censorship machine.
“What I fear most about this site is its ability to erase something just by snapping its finger,” one user wrote on Douban, another Chinese social networking platform. “The fact that it’s a person, a group of people, an organization or even an ethnic group.”
The Chinese government’s attitude toward the LGBTQ community changes frequently. From time to time, the government has equated homosexuality with violence and obscenity, censored representations on television, and allowed books to refer to homosexuality as a kind of mental illness. However, at the same time, the government’s attitude towards the community is not always openly hostile and Beijing in general has left the community alone.
Since 2009, Shanghai marks the month of pride, which usually falls in June in most countries, with film screenings and public talks, albeit without the parade that is central to other celebrations. places. Last year, organizers were forced to stop the celebration due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But not everyone supports the community.
There are many who fully support government repression. Some people with a great following on Weibo are pretty content with, if not ecstatic, the latest development. “I’m so glad the government is taking some action on LGBT organizations,” wrote Ziwuxiashi, a Weibo account with more than 500,000 followers. “The pain of [the supporters of the community] is our song of triumph! ”
China’s most conservative forces have often shown a vehement hatred of homosexuality or gender nonconformism for an alleged “agenda to destroy traditional values,” according to some vocal opponents of the movement, including some who call themselves scientific writers. like Vaccine and Science, one has more than five million followers.
There is still no legal recognition of same-sex relationships or marriage, but as people have become more socially liberal in recent years, people hostile to the LGBTQ community have moved away from their arguments. of “traditional values”.
A sample of online and offline conversations makes it clear that another point of view is gaining strength: the suspicion that the LGBTQ community, especially on college campuses, is the pawn of a so-called “foreign hostile force” that it could alter Chinese society and therefore should be carefully regulated.
“Addressing these groups is a good step because these students have learned a lot of bad things from foreign powers and are becoming their agents,” one user commented on Weibo.
“Go to tactics”
In recent years, the idea that feminism and LGBTQ equality are products of Western ideology and that its mere existence in China will destroy society has been widely shared, and as Beijing approaches the idea of assigning internal discontent to the intrusion of foreign powers, their voices are amplifying.
“Defending equality is making a color revolution, supporting feminism is infiltrating the Hong Kong independence movement and being a supporter of the LGBT community is receiving the monetary support of [US President Joe] Biden, “he told Al Jazeera Wu, an organizer of an LGBTQ rights group in Shanghai, who described some of the allegations against them.” Labeling normal people with political marks and then prosecuting them. , this is so [the government’s] go to tactics “.
Since Xi Jinping became president in 2012, political power has become even more centralized and the Communist Party is increasingly sensitive to groups and organizations (from religion to culture and community) that could pose threats to to their control.
A report on China’s LGBTIQ movement released this month by ILGA Asia, the regional arm of the International Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Trans and Intersex People, found that “limited visibility of LGBTIQ issues on social media and online activism is in a vulnerable state due to strict censorship by the authoritarian government. “
On social media, for example, instead of calling themselves “couples” or “boyfriends,” same-sex couples are described as “roommates” to deliberately make “joy” less visible.
“This is [the government’s] an implicit tactic of including homosexuality in the heteronormative narrative, thus removing the LGBT group from its political voice, ”one WeChat user wrote.
What awaits the group’s struggle for civil liberties in one of the world’s most strictly controlled countries remains uncertain. ILGA says that despite the “bleak scenario”, “opportunities” remain, especially in areas of violence and discrimination against the gay community and in the defense of legal rights.
And within the world’s largest LGBTQ community, people retain a sense of optimism.
“There are a lot of things that might come off of us, but love and hope: they’re not that easy to carry,” said one person who works at an LGBTQ-focused NGO in Wuhan.