Outrage over crackdown on LGBTQ WeChat accounts in China
An online clampdown of social media accounts associated with China’s campus LGBTQ movement has sparked outrage, solidarity and backlash against the authorities’ treatment of the country’s sexual and gender minorities.
Dozens of WeChat accounts run by LGBTQ university students were blocked and then deleted on Tuesday, without warning. Some of the accounts – a mix of registered student clubs and unofficial grassroots groups – had operated for years as safe spaces for China’s LGBTQ youth, with tens of thousands of followers.
Attempts to access the WeChat accounts were met with an error message which said the content had been blocked and account deactivated “after receiving relevant complaints”. Other messages said the accounts “had violated regulations on the management of accounts offering public information service on the Chinese internet”, Reuters reported.
The shutdowns have added to concern over China’s worsening intolerance for sexual and gender minorities and activism, which has also targeted feminist groups and individuals who have sought to push back against discrimination.
China’s social media giants routinely censor content considered to be politically or culturally sensitive, but it is often unclear if such decision come from government directions or are made internally, based on what is believed to be expected by government.
On Wednesday afternoon the Weibo account of Zhou Xiaoxuan, popularly known as Xianzi, was suspended for a year for violating “Weibo complaint regulations”. Xianzi is seen as a key figure of China’s #MeToo movement, after she accused her former employer, a popular television host, of sexual harassment.
Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, did not explain the reasons behind the mass take-downs, and declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian.
Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale law school’s Paul Tsai China centre, who researches LGBTQ rights in China, said that this week’s development is not surprising in the current climate.
“A degree of official indifference had allowed [China’s] LGBT advocacy to thrive in a grey space, but that space is now being squeezed down,” said Longarino.
Homosexuality in China was illegal until 1997, and classified as a mental health disorder until 2001. And while public acceptance – and commercial capitalisation – of the LGBTQ community in China has grown, authorities have not followed in step. The authorities’ slow squeeze of China’s LGBTQ community has been going on for some years – but until recently were often met with activists’ pushed-back.
In 2015, a Chinese film-maker sued state administrators in a quest to discover how and why his gay-themed documentary was removed from local streaming sites. He eventually won the case. In 2018, after outcry, social media platform Weibo reversed a controversial publishing ban that lumped homosexual content in with phonographic and violent material.
But activists said the space for activism has become visibly smaller in the last few years. In 2019, another social media platform Weibo reportedly purged all comments and posts that feature the hashtag #les, in reference to lesbians. Weibo users also reported that they were no longer able to use the rainbow flag in their bios.
Last year, Shanghai Pride, the country’s only major annual celebration of sexual minorities, abruptly announced its shutdown. In an open letter, the organisers of the event said the move means “the end of the rainbow” for them. “It’s been a great 12-year ride, and we are honoured and proud to have traveled this journey of raising awareness and promoting diversity for the LGBTQ community,” they wrote.
Amid increasing nationalism online, some corners of China’s internet have also sought to link, without evidence, LGBTQ and rights groups with foreign interference or “anti-China” forces.
Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalistic, state-owned tabloid The Global Times, said in a WeChat article that the state puts “no restriction on sexual minorities’ lifestyle choices,” but LGBT people should “be more patient” and “not try to become a high-profile ideology.”
It’s hard to tell whether the latest suppression marked a complete shutdown of such discussions on the Chinese internet, said Longarino. “My sense is that the short term is going to continue to be treacherous sailing, but the LGBT movement’s gains over the last two decades, in terms of its community-building and broadening of public support, coupled with its impressive resilience, can see it through,” he added.
In New York, a spontaneous art exhibition to commemorate the deleted WeChat accounts is being planned for later this week. Organisers of the event called on participants to bring their own poems, graffiti and rainbow flags to highlight censorship.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the department was aware of the shutdowns and was concerned that China had restricted the accounts of groups which were “merely expressing their views, exercising their right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech”.