From Stonewall to Firewall

Exploring the struggle for Queer rights in China against digital censorship

Overnight, a community can be swiped empty. It was around the 14th of April when users of China’s biggest social media platform, SinaWeibo, awoke to the complete disappearance of the popular super topic ‘les’ (lesbian). The super topic, similar to our ‘tag’, had once boasted over 46 million posts and reached up to  140,000 followers. Upon the discovery, users flooded the site in protest. “We Are Les,” proclaimed the torrent of angry posts, pushing the term ‘les’ onto Weibo’s top searched items. Alongside this was an outpouring of selfies that showed women with mouths taped shut by black crosses, a single red tear painted beneath their eyes. The backlash coloured Weibo in a rainbow flag. Not long after that, China’s notorious messaging app, WeChat, banned the use of all rainbow emojis in usernames.

This is not the first time that LGBTQ communities have faced censorship within China’s cyberspace. Last year, a “clean-up” campaign was launched by Weibo that included the removal of all LGBTQ content, categorising it within the realms of violence and pornography. After an outburst of personal letters, threats of legal action, and protests against the company, the decision was reversed — a small leap of success for a community that has yet again vanished within keystrokes. Much like the grim implications of recent events, it points to increasingly strict control over public morality and Internet freedom within China’s digital spaces.

Social media platforms like Weibo have to follow regulatory guidelines enforced by the Chinese government. Known as the ‘Great Firewall’, these guidelines are implemented under opaque standards that allow not only for their malleability but their ambiguity. This gives every opportunity for the government to eliminate undesirable content on the Internet by classifying it as corrupted or pornographic. These online restraints have only grown tighter over the years. Under President Xi Jinping, these restraints have severely intensified to not only secure China’s cyber-sovereignty but to enforce a standard of social morality forged by the government. This is a standard that categorises homosexuality as part of ‘abnormal sexual relations’ akin to incest, perversion, sexual assault, and violence according to the 2016 censorship guidelines issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

Over the past years, censorship guidelines have succeeded in suppressing many platforms that promoted issues of gender and identity. This includes a permanent ban on Feminist Voices (a popular digital archive that played a key role in the #MeToo movement in China), censorship of all scenes that depicted homosexuality in the film Bohemian Rhapsody, and the required removal of all videos depicting same-sex relationships by the China Netcasting Service Association. These attacks on freedom of expression mostly take place within the cyberspace. However, they are absolutely reflective of the structural inequalities that already exist in society that have seeped over time into digital realms.

Even more bleak are the real world consequences of LGBTQ communities openly expressing themselves. China’s laws in regards to violence and pornography serve as a backdoor for the purge of LGBTQ voices. In October 2018, a novelist under the pen name of Tianyi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for including explicit depictions of homoeroticism in her work. Charged with the production and distribution of “obscene material”, her novel Occupy was categorised as harmful to the maintenance of public morality.  These attacks on digital spaces are a mirror to the wider struggle for queer expression against the backdrop of political censorship and legal ambiguity.

Despite the great restraints on freedom of speech, the Chinese cyberspace remains a vital ground for the LGBTQ community. Due to the absence of offline spaces available for queer narratives, the internet acts as an essential safe space. What emerges are queer networks: networks that insecurely rock between the efforts of digital-activism and cyber-censorship. The cyberspace serves as a particularly vital aspect of queer expression in China, a country where open discussions of sexuality are rarely tolerated in everyday life.

Queer digital platforms also help transcend activism beyond the borders of China. The best example of this is Queer Comrades, the only established and independent Chinese LGBTQ webcast as of today. Described by most as an ‘online TV channel for gay people’, the site has broadcasted more than 100 talk shows that focus not only on the characteristics of China’s queer culture, but also cover global LGBTQ issues. All of Queer Comrades’ videos are subtitled in English, enhancing accessibility for international audiences and widening the scope of awareness on China’s LGBTQ issues. The webcast’s marked international presence is indicative of the need for this struggle to extend beyond the Chinese blogosphere in order to combat governmental censorships. Being China’s only consolidated queer website, with many others being short-lived due to censorship regulations, Queer Comrades understands the ways in which global exchange helps strengthen the capabilities of queer activism within the Great Firewall. In connecting China’s domestic queer community to the rest of the world, digital platforms like Queer Comrades are pushing towards a stronger, globally integrated LGBTQ+ movement. More importantly, globalised digital spaces facilitate queer dialogues between China and the voices that resound beyond the Great Firewall.

Nearly 34 percent of China’s 688 million netizens actively engage in microblogging through Weibo.The existence of a digital queer community points towards a brighter future ahead — as awareness on LGBTQ issues continues to increase even amidst strict censorship attempts. Perhaps, what we are witnessing is not only a call towards the protection of these digital spaces, but also a demonstration of great resilience by a community that refuses to be silenced in the face of mounting political control. As one treads through the precarious lanes of censorship, the collapse of the Great Firewall still remains beyond sight. However, as long as there exists a narrow path of latitude, the queer comrades of China (with their smartphones ready in hand) will continue to march on.