SHANGHAI – For more than a decade, Chinese social media has given a voice to groups that have otherwise been overlooked or maligned, including the LGBTQ community. Although the government may have officially disapproved, and cat-and-mouse games with the authorities were common, the online world still offered a place of relative tolerance and tranquility. Last weekend, that delicate balance seemed threatened — until users revolted.
On April 13, Sina Weibo, a social media platform, announced that it was banning cartoons, games and videos containing gay themes, in an effort to comply with cybersecurity laws. Users reacted furiously. By Monday, the anger had grown so intense that the service reversed course and said the “clean-up no longer targets gay content.” For the government, which has long sought to restrict gay themes in media, it was a nearly unprecedented rebuke.
Historically, China hasn’t had an especially fraught relationship to homosexuality. One of its great classical novels, “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” contains gay relationships. Under Communist rule, however, homosexuality was criminalized until 1997. The party remains a deeply conservative organization dedicated to traditional values, including filial piety and heterosexual marriage. It is also highly skeptical of calls for more personal liberties; insofar as gay Chinese are viewed as seeking new rights — including the right to marry — they’re viewed with suspicion.
Yet the disapproving gaze of official China has done little to inhibit the emergence of LGBTQ communities in recent years. A 2016 survey suggested that there are at least 70 million gay Chinese, with spending power exceeding $300 billion annually. Businesses catering to this “pink economy” — via advertising, products, services and culture — have only boosted the visibility of gay China.
Urbanization has also played a key role, creating physical spaces where gay Chinese can meet. But even more important has been the emergence of apps and social media. Individuals who once felt isolated were suddenly able to connect to a broader community. Blued, a gay hook-up app based in Beijing, now has 27 million users. One result, according to three studies conducted between 2006 and 2015, is that opposition to gay rights is steadily declining in China.
Even as social acceptance grows, however, regulators remain largely hostile. In 2016, the authorities banned a wildly popular gay-themed online drama and then prohibited TV programs from showing homosexual content altogether. Last year, they shut down Rela, the country’s leading lesbian app, after it helped organize a protest by mothers of LGBTQ children.
Each of these instances generated intense opposition that quickly evaporated. But a showdown was clearly looming. Last year, the government announced a ban on gay content in online programming. Public anger flared, especially because the directive connected homosexuality to sexual abuse and violence. On April 13, that flare became a blaze when Sina Weibo began enforcing its new policy. “I am gay and I’m proud, even if I get taken down there are tens of millions like me!” wrote one outraged user. By the next day, protest hashtags had been viewed 240 million times. Sina Weibo, caught off guard, soon backtracked.
Not every group in China enjoys that kind of support. In recent days, the government shut down a popular joke app noted for ribald humor; since then, the app’s frustrated members, numbering in the millions, have rallied in opposition. But the public is largely ambivalent and authorities have little reason to back down.
Regulators haven’t yet commented on Sina Weibo’s decision. But the broad and spontaneous opposition to the ban surely caught their attention. While the central government is otherwise becoming more powerful, it remains wary of interfering with what the middle class views as their private lives. Increasingly, that extends to gay Chinese as much as anyone else.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist.