The shutdown of influential LGBTQ social media accounts in China has triggered an online outrage, raising fears of tougher crackdown on queer activism in the country.
Dozens of LGBTQ accounts, many run by students at China’s most prestigious universities, were abruptly closed down by the social app WeChat on Tuesday evening. Previously, the accounts were thriving online communities for sexual minorities and provided a platform for discussions about gender issues.
It’s unclear if the mass shutdown was ordered by the government. Several groups said on other social platforms that they were informed by WeChat that the accounts violated laws and regulations, and had since been trying to recover the deleted articles.
China does not allow explicitly gay content on mainstream TV or newspapers, but young people have been able to discuss queer issues on social media and form non-governmental groups supporting sexual minorities.
With Beijing tightening control over civil societies in recent years, the space appears to be shrinking.
The accounts that got closed down had at least tens of thousands of followers and included ones with elite schools such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Renmin University. They regularly published articles on gender theories, mental health, workplace discrimination, and dating tips, providing resources to not only students but also the wider LGBTQ community.
“This was a sleepless night for everyone,” Zhuzi, a 35-year-old graduate from Fudan University in Shanghai, told VICE World News. They declined to provide a full name due to the sensitivity of the issue. “They are making it look like China has no gay people. This is very dumb, evil, and ignorant.”
Zhuzi identifies as a non-binary person and was struggling with shame and loneliness while being raised in a conservative part of northwestern China. At Zhihe Society, a gender-focused group founded by Fudan University students in 2006, they met other gay people for the first time in the real world, learned about feminism, and came to accept their identity. The group got its WeChat account shuttered at 9:53 p.m. on Tuesday, it said on microblogging site Weibo.
Cui Le, a researcher on queer issues in China’s education sector with the University of Auckland, said the crackdown reflected the tightening social control in China and the authorities’ growing intolerance of LGBTQ discussions.
The campus queer groups are where many gay students network, discuss their LGBTQ identities, and support each other. The suppression will likely drive the groups into the underground, fuel self-censorship, and deter gay students from coming out on campus, Cui said.
“On one hand, individuals often seem powerless when they face the bigger social condition and political system. There’s limited space for resistance,” Cui told VICE World News. “On the other hand, China’s young generation are increasingly embracing sexual diversity and equality. This is the trend of our times.”
Many young people have protested the accounts’ shutdown on social media. Some posted Beijing’s pledge at a United Nations meeting in 2020 that it objected to discrimination and violence based on gender and sexual orientation.
On Wednesday, Weibo banned users from commenting on a popular post about the mass shutdown, while WeChat censored a widely-shared article expressing solidarity and shuttered the account that posted it.
Meanwhile, homophobic comments have been gaining traction among right-wing nationalists and, while not explicitly endorsed by the authorities, are permitted on the heavily-censored Chinese internet. Some influencers have branded LGBTQ as a Western ideology, and accused activists of colluding with foreign forces in undermining the Chinese political system.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.