China's Weibo backflips on gay content ban amid fierce backlash

Tens of thousands of Chinese residents protested efforts to censor gay-themed images by the social network Sina Weibo. Source: via Weibo

Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites, has reversed its decision to delete posts relating to gay culture as part of a three-month “clean-up” effort.

China’s Sina Weibo has reversed a decision to remove gay content after critics said the company smeared the country's LGBTQI+ community in a bid to meet government censorship directives.

China’s Twitter-equivalent Weibo said on Friday it would remove pornographic, violent or gay videos and cartoons in a three-month campaign, singling out a genre of manga animations and comics that often depict raunchy gay male relationships.

In response, LGBTQI+ advocates poured online to criticise the decision using hashtags, open letters and even calls to dump Sina shares.

On Monday, Weibo said the clean-up would no longer target gay content.

The outcry reflects a fear that growing censorship tends to ban all gay content as “dirty”, a setback for efforts to carve out an online space of tolerance for homosexuality in China’s traditionally Confucian society, LGBTQI+ advocates say.

It was unclear whether Weibo’s measure was a direct result of a censorship directive from the government or an initiative taken by the company itself. Weibo did not respond to a request for comment.

The official People’s Daily newspaper of the ruling Communist Party on Sunday encouraged tolerance toward gay people, but added that “vulgar” content must be removed regardless of sexual orientation.

Chinese LGBTQI+ advocates hope to promote gay rights by educating society about sexual preferences and pushing back against traditional pressures to marry and have children.

Social media is a key “battleground” where LGBTQI+ advocates take on conservative celebrities who dish out popular dating advice, such as saying that the best couples marry early, produce sons and are straight, according to Xiao Tie, head of the Beijing LGBT Centre.

“The problem with the policy is that it equates LGBT content with porn,” Xiao said on Sunday, adding that she believes the government is not actively anti-gay, just that it has no clear idea how to deal with the issue.

“But the bigger problem is the culture of strict censorship,” she added. “Social media used to be an open space, but in the last year things have started to change.”

Weibo said the campaign is to ensure that the company is in line with online content regulations released in June last year that lump homosexuality in with sexual abuse and violence as constituting “abnormal sexual relationships”.

The fight against Weibo’s decision saw LGBTQI+ groups, advocates and gay Chinese speaking out through letters and hashtags.

The tag “I am gay” was viewed nearly 300 million times on Weibo before being censored on Saturday.

Beijing-based advocacy group PFLAG China on Sunday called on Weibo’s shareholders to punish the “evil” acts of the NASDAQ-listed company by “voting with their feet” and selling shares.

Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Other gay Chinese also wrote their own stories in letters to the CEO of Sina Weibo, Charles Chao.

Hao Kegui, one such writer, came out as a lesbian in an open letter published on social media last year where she describes how she had felt pressured into marrying a man to please her parents.

“The main concern for me is that, because China is very big, and places outside big cities are quite conservative, there are lots of gay people who only learn about their sexuality online,” Hao told Reuters.

“I worry the censorship will cause more people to just live in the closet and never come out.”

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