Tencent’s WeChat social media platform on Tuesday evening blocked and wiped all past content of the accounts for the campus LGBTQ groups of China’s top universities, striking a major blow against LGBTQ awareness and rights.
Many campus LGBTQ clubs have never been officially recognized or condoned, but have been able to operate unofficially for years under the radar, posting content online and carrying out certain activities when possible amidst periodic crackdowns.
Late Tuesday evening, however, users unexpectedly found that the social media accounts for most such groups and even gender-related academic research associations had been wiped from the web.
They now all display the 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.”
Those now deleted include: Tsinghua University’s unofficial LGBTQ club Purple, Peking University’s unofficial LGBTQ club Colorsworld; Fudan University’s Zhiheshe; Wuhan University’s Gender Equality Research Association; Nanjing University’s Same Sky Association for Gender Equality; Xi’An Academy of Fine Art’s Olive Tree Group; Renmin University of China’s Sex and Gender Research Society, and similar research-oriented groups at Huazhong University of Science and Technology and East China Normal University, among numerous others located across China.
The various LGBTQ groups served different functions but all provided a space for improving knowledge on LGBTQ issues and support for LGBTQ students. Colorsworld, for instance, organized weekly volunteer-led online support group and Q&A sessions, while Purple organized various activities, and Zhiheshe was more research-oriented, becoming a space for the sharing of gender-related academic research. Most have existed for years.
“It’s very painful seeing this,” said Fan Popo, a Chinese filmmaker now based in Berlin who has worked closely in the past with a number of the groups for screenings or work on his documentaries on LGBTQ issues (“The VaChina Monologues,” “Mama Rainbow”).
“Such groups are very important even though they were half or fully underground already,” Fan said. “It’s such a shame that even the very limited space they had is now not even allowed. It’s such a shame for the students involved who are so passionate, because in recent years they have definitely faced ever stronger pressure from the universities, the government and social media censor, but still insist on doing their work.”
In 2015, Fan sued China’s top censorship body after “Mama Rainbow,” his documentary about mothers coming to terms with the sexual identity of their gay and lesbian children, also mysteriously, simultaneously disappeared overnight from major video streamers that had previously hosted the content without issue. The court verdict declared that the censorship authorities had not itself released a specific directive calling for the film to be removed.
In Tuesday’s case, no reason has been given for the current shutdown of accounts. Civil society accounts are often shut down in China amidst crackdowns on activism.
Some WeChat users reported Tuesday that if they clicked into the pages for the now-defunct LGBTQ accounts, the account would automatically become hidden from view upon exiting, and remain searchable only indirectly via the term “unnamed official account.”
“I can’t accept these accounts being disappeared like this – they helped so many people like me,” one WeChat commenter blogging about the incident wrote. “This clean-up action is tantamount to outright discrimination and persecution of China’s sexual minorities.”
‘Clean Up’ Gay Content
Companies can face financial and other consequences for failing to comply with China’s strict censorship standards. Authorities require that they carry out and foot the bill for censorship on their platforms themselves. In the absence of clear directives — as is the case for gay content, which has long existed in a gray zone — they tend to err on the side of caution.
That caution has been at all time high over the past month due to the heightened censorship around the double whammy of two highly political anniversaries: the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and the July 1 centenary of the ruling Communist Party’s founding.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, but still offers few legal protections for LGBTQ citizens. Despite improvements, particularly in the attitudes of younger generations, same-sex relations remain taboo in China, unlike in neighboring Taiwan, which became the first in Asia to legalize gay marriage.
Foreign films featuring gay content have been censored in China, with the Beijing Intl. Film Festival abruptly cancelling a screening of “Call Me By Your Name,” and all references to Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s sexual identity and AIDS cut from “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
There have been a few previous occasions, however, when a Chinese social media giant has reversed its decision to remove LGBTQ content.
In 2018, a Weibo campaign to “clean up” gay-themed posts on its platform as part of a sweep against pornographic, violent or illegal content sparked enough public outcry that the social media giant changed its policy
In 2019, Weibo also backtracked on its decision to shut down a prominent community for lesbian and bisexual women called “les” after millions viewed and posted hashtags in support of the group.
“I hope that within our lifetimes, we will be able to see different opinions and the voices of different groups in our online spaces, rather than a few people using their power to mute and delete other people’s voices,” an anonymous WeChat user wrote in a post maligning the LGBTQ accounts’ erasure. “The country and its people have sacrificed too much for politics.”