Just like the silence before Sharia law being applied to the LGBT people in Brunei attracted few attentions, what is happening now in China appears to be something remote. Changes have been occurred incrementally and quietly, yet for the LGBT community which has already been marginalized, every change made by the powerful state is a blast, particularly those from this April. On April 12, #les was banned in two mainstream online platforms, Weibo (Twitter in Chinese version) and Douban. In response to the ban, those from or those who support the LGBT community asked the authority to lift the ban by recreating tags like #Iamles and #lesban. They reached the top ten of the top search queries of Weibo and successfully seized the public attention. On April 14, as a response from the authority, all the search queries related to les and LGBTQ in general were removed, and any topics involved LGBTQI were banned (female health is weirdly included these topics). Two days later, LGBT-related products were withdrawn from Taobao (ebay in Chinese version) under the official statement: containing content on violence and porn. On April 17, keywords related to ‘gay’ are banned on Bilibili (Youtube in Chinese version). Throughout the government’s attempts to entirely wipe out the LGBT on the internet, individual efforts to preserve LGBT online platforms and to attract public attentions are constant. Unsurprisingly, they faced even harsher suppression, and many individuals were ‘invited for tea’ by the officials in real life. This total crackdown facilitated by well-developed government censorship helps the government to keep these changes low-profile, apart from few media coverage.
Social media and the internet are extremely important for Chinese LGBT community. Before mid-90’s when the community did not have the word for its identity (like gay in the west for example), it is the internet that connected LGBT people in the mainland with their fellows in Hongkong, who started to use tong’zhi(equivalent of gay in Chinese).Tong’zhi had later become the term used to refer to LGBT identity in mainland till today. With the name, a true sense of community started to foster, and for many people, it is when they stop feeling strange and guilty about themselves. Further, the internet provides a useful platform for the LGBT community to organize offline activities, ranging from personal party to art festivals. Through these activities, people not only satisfy their social need, but understand their identity more. For example, the LGBT mutual study group in Hangzhou (whose social media has already been banned of course) organized LGBT film screening and discussion on weekly basis. For the one I attended last summer, a scholar was invited to lead a debate about “is political involvement necessary for Chinese LGBT”. There are numerous groups like this one in many cities in China, and they show that what internet benefits are not only individuals but the growth of civil society. More importantly, it is a role that only internet can play given any offline rally and meeting have become increasingly dangerous under the deepening authoritarian governance in China.
Image Courtesy of InSapphoWeTrust via flickr © 2011, some rights reserved
However, it seems that this small room left for the LGBT community will not exist any longer. On April 20, a few screenshots of a chat group went viral online. They show that students in a university were asked by their teacher to report whether there is LGBT student in the class. The survey is carried out dorm by dorm, and the leader of each dorm is expected to write a report in a fixed format:
Number of students:
Is there a problem:
In a summative chart which is believed to be accidentally released by the teacher, ‘solution’ and ‘problems’ are the headlines of a series of names and data. The name of the university was revealed two days later, and many more students posted on the internet saying similar measures have been carrying out in theirs as well.
The threats and fear of such measures cannot be fully understood without introducing ‘information personnel’ (xinxi yuan) system in Chinese universities. Significantly strengthened in the past few years, the university secretly recruits student ‘spy’ into the system. ‘Information personnel’ reports suspicious or politically sensitive words or deeds of their fellow students (like me writing this article) to the university. In return, these students earn money and gain reward from the university. Individuals who get reported may suffer serious consequences, ranging from ending career to putting into prison, as they have been shown in some cases. Such survey, or ‘troubleshoot’ (literal translation of the word that teacher used), has been mostly carried out through the ‘information personnel’ system.
There was a time when discussions of tolerance towards sexual minorities went live on TV, and articles like ‘Gay Rights in China: Road to Respect’ were published on China Daily. Nevertheless, the Chinese LGBT community has been hesitant to politicize its identity to enact changes at legislative and political level due to various reasons. Apart from limited political space, the Chinese traditional idea of family is another influential factor to many of the LGBT people. As Wei Wei, the leading Chinese scholar on LGBT studies, points out, come-out in China dose not primarily mean an expression of identity, but seek of returning to family. What matters most is trust and tolerance from the surrounding people. Today, this humble pursuit becomes luxury. Worse still, it is one of many similar decisions China made to become a great country.
Banner picture: Image Courtesy of Gays.com via flickr © 2010, some rights reserved