One of China’s biggest social media companies on Monday reversed a decision to censor gay content – a rare victory for the country’s nascent but increasingly vocal LGBT rights movement.
Bowing to intense public pressure, Sina Weibo – often called China’s Twitter – said its latest campaign to “clean up” the platform would no longer target gay-themed content.
“We thank all for your discussions and suggestions,” it said in a brief notice posted on its website.
The microblogging service, which boasts nearly 400 million active users, had vowed Friday to remove all gay-themed cartoons and videos – along with pornographic and violent material – to comply with Chinese laws and regulations.
“Sina Weibo’s original decision simply made no sense – why link homosexuality with other illegal activities,” said Xiaogang Wei, a leading LGBT rights advocate in China.
“They targeted the entire LGBT community in that notice,” he added. “We must pressure these companies and show them it’s not easy to discriminate against an entire community – no matter who orders them to do it.”
Weibo’s announcement came amid an intensifying government effort to rein in the country’s fast-growing social media networks to create what President Xi Jinping has promised to be “a clean cyberspace.”
Online content that has fallen victim to tightened censorship rules includes feminist voices, hip hop music and “vulgar” jokes – a trend that’s affected some of China’s biggest and hottest online platforms, and alarmed business analysts and rights monitors.
‘Speaking up can bring about change’
“The Gay Voice,” a popular Weibo page with a focus on gay rights and artwork around the world, announced to its more than 230,000 followers Saturday that it would stop updating its page due to “event of force majeure” – a veiled reference to Friday’s statement.
The short notice, which was reposted thousands of times, has received an outpouring of public support – with countless users resurrecting an old topic “I am gay” that the page started seven years ago and turning it into a new viral hashtag.
“I feel totally surprised and touched,” Hua Zile, founder of the Weibo page as well as the NGO that bears the same time, told CNN on Monday.
“Seven years ago, not that many people were willing to make their voices heard this way,” he said. “It’s amazing to see this happen now, with everyone – straight or gay, celebrities or ordinary people – using the hashtag and joining in.”
With Weibo lifting its censorship, “The Gay Voice” posted a new message Monday afternoon, thanking all supporters and promising its return.
“What’s transpired in the last 48 hours is enough to prove that only speaking up can bring about changes,” it said.
Homosexuality is not illegal in China and the authorities in 2001 removed it from the official list of mental disorders, but activists and experts agree that prejudices and discrimination – as well as periodic government crackdowns – persist.
Since consolidating power last year, Xi has increasingly stressed the Communist Party’s absolute control over all aspects of society, resulting in a push for more rigid moral codes and even less room for LGBT visibility and advocacy.
Popo Fan, a gay filmmaker who once sued China’s top media regulator after his documentary on parents with gay children was pulled from Chinese video sites, said he’s already witnessed a chilling effect.
“I’ve been casting for a new gay film and many actors are worried about being blacklisted if they get involved,” he said. “Censorship leads to self-censorship – and that’s the worst outcome.”
In a possible sign of internal government division on the issue, the People’s Daily – the Communist Party’s mouthpiece – on Sunday published a widely shared commentary on its social media platforms, reaffirming the diversity of sexual orientations and the importance of non-discrimination.
But the article also highlighted the necessity to censor all pornographic and violent content online regardless of sexuality, and warned against exploiting gay themes to “attract eyeballs.”
“Homosexuals are also ordinary citizens,” it said. “While they advocate for their rights, they also must bear their social responsibilities.”