Chengdu, China – A week ago without warning, WeChat, a popular social media platform in China, permanently suspended the official accounts of more than a dozen college LGBTQ groups, igniting a new round of debate on the country’s already threatened community.
The suspensions largely affected groups almost entirely run by students, including at prestigious academic institutions such as Tsinghua and Peking universities. The groups’ missions, according to their brief introductions, were “advancing gender equality and sexual minorities’ rights.”
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Several students who run the LGBTQ group accounts told Al Jazeera that they had not previously received any warnings from the relevant authorities about any possible suspension.
Mary, a student who was involved in one of the suspended groups, says that while there had been “chatter” on campus on regulating “groups that advocate for sexual minorities’ rights” for a few months before, nothing had materialised.
“It came as 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 one after another in China, but we thought at least by being university-affiliated, we could be exempt from any overt crackdown.”
Like Mary, everyone else who spoke Al Jazeera did so on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity surrounding LGBTQ issues.
These accounts now carry the tag “unnamed official account,” with a single message appearing beneath – “all content has been censored for the account’s violation of ‘internet official account information service management regulations.’” All the articles previously published on the platforms, mostly on gender issues and LGBTQ rights, have disappeared.
As in previous crackdowns in China, any effort to try and document the move was soon snuffed out, too. Some accounts were suspended simply for compiling a list of the accounts that had been deleted.
Neither the government nor Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, has given an explanation for the suspension.
People at groups that escaped the crackdown told Al Jazeera they were preparing for the worst.
One worker at a prominent LGBTQ group said he had started making copies of all articles published on their platform, currently numbering more than 1,000. Another went on Taobao, China’s e-commerce platform and paid someone to download all the articles, with topics ranging from health to political rights advocacy, on a number of accounts that she feared could be officials’ next targets.
For now, it is only the groups’ online presence that has been smothered but many groups are concerned that authorities could be preparing for a broader crackdown on campus events and activities by LGBTQ groups. People such as Mary say they are working hard to ensure “other activities go on as scheduled.”
“This is a dark day for us, and I don’t know if there’s anything I could do other than reaching out to my friends and comforting them,” Kevin, a gay man in Chengdu, told Al Jazeera, after hearing the news.
The online crackdown on the community caused an outcry on China’s social media.
Many voiced their support for the groups, even as they worried about the further encroachment into civil society.
“After years of having worked at this organisation and seeing my colleagues being interrogated, censored, forced to delete articles, I will never forgive this [country],” said a person who worked at another group that had fallen victim to the censorship.
Some others expressed their concern about the all-encompassing state censorship machine.
“What I fear most about this place is its ability to wipe out something just by snapping its finger,” wrote one user on Douban, another Chinese social media platform. “The something being a person, a group of people, an organisation, or even an ethnic group.”
Chinese government’s attitude towards the LGBTQ community shifts frequently. From time to time, the government has equated homosexuality with violence and obscenity, censored depictions 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 overtly hostile and Beijing has, by and large, left the community alone.
Since 2009, Shanghai has been marking Pride Month, which normally falls in June in most countries, with film screenings and public talks, although without the parade that is central to the celebrations elsewhere. Last year, the organisers were forced to halt the celebration due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But not everyone is supportive of the community.
There are many who fully endorse the government’s crackdown. Some people with big followings on Weibo are quite content with, if not ecstatic about, the latest development. “So glad that the government is finally taking some action on the LGBT organisations,” wrote Ziwuxiashi, a Weibo account with more than 500,000 followers. “The grief from [the supporters of the community] is our song of triumph!”
China’s more conservative forces have often exhibited a vehement hatred towards homosexuality or gender nonconformity for an alleged “agenda to destroy traditional values,” according to some vocal opponents of the movement, including some that brand themselves as science writers such as Vaccine and Science, an account with more than five million followers.
There remains no legal recognition of same-sex relationships or marriage but as people have become more socially liberal in recent years, those hostile to the LGBTQ community have shifted away from their “traditional values” argument.
A sampling of conversations happening on- and offline makes clear that another viewpoint is gaining traction: a suspicion that the LGBTQ community, especially on college campuses, is the pawn of a so-called “foreign hostile force” that could disrupt Chinese society and therefore needs to be carefully regulated.
“To target these groups is a good move because these students have learned so many bad things from foreign powers and are becoming their agents,” one user commented on Weibo.
In recent years, the idea that feminism and LGBTQ equality are all products of Western ideology and their mere existence in China will destroy society has been widely shared, and as Beijing warms to the idea of assigning domestic discontent to meddling by foreign powers, their voices are being amplified.
“To advocate for equality is to stage colour revolution, to support feminism is the infiltration of Hong Kong independence movement, and to be pro-LGBT community is to receive monetary support from [US President Joe] Biden,” Wu, an organiser for an LGBTQ rights advocacy group in Shanghai, told Al Jazeera, describing some of the accusations levelled at them. “To label ordinary people with political marks, and then persecute them – that’s [the government’s] go-to tactic.”
Since Xi Jinping became president in 2012, political power has become even more centralised and the Communist Party increasingly sensitive to groups and organisations – from religion to culture and community – that could potentially pose as threats to its grip.
A report on China’s LGBTIQ movement published this month by ILGA Asia, the regional arm of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, found “limited visibility of LGBTIQ issues in 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 being called “couples” or “boyfriends,” same-sex partners are described as “roommates” to deliberately make the “gayness” less visible.
“This is [the government’s] implicit tactic of including homosexuality into the heteronormative narrative, thus ridding the LGBT group of their political voice,” wrote one WeChat user.
What awaits the group’s struggle for civil liberties in one of the world’s most tightly controlled countries remains uncertain. ILGA says that despite the “bleak scenario” there remain “opportunities” particularly in areas of violence and discrimination against the gay community and in legal rights advocacy.
And within the world’s largest LGBTQ community, people retain a sense of optimism.
“There are many things that could be stripped off of us, but love and hope – they are not that easy to be taken away,” said one person who works at an LGBTQ-focused NGO in Wuhan.