In the Dream of the Red Chamber – one of China’s four great classical novels – the main male character Jia Baoyu seems to enjoy a romantic relationship with another man, Jiang Yuhan.
The Peking opera singer lives with a male friend of Jia’s. When Jia comes to visit, Jiang and Jia appear attracted to each other. They have long conversations, hold hands and exchange intimate love tokens.
But under new rules that were announced by the social media platform Sina Weibo earlier this month, depictions of a relationship like this could be banned. “In order to create a bright and harmonious environment….we will be targeting Manga cartoons and short videos that contain pornography, promote violence and feature gay and lesbian themes,” it said in an official notice.
This is not the first time gay relationships have been lumped together with criminal and immoral behaviour in censorships notices.
Last year China’s media watchdog, SAPPRFT, issued instructions banning the depiction of “abnormal relationships” in TV dramas, as well as online videos and computer games. The notices gave incest and homosexuality as two examples.
This time, however, many people decided to push back, angered by the insinuation that homosexuality was as socially damaging as violence or pornography. Regardless of their sexuality, netizens posted messages on Sina Weibo protesting against the site’s so-called “clean-up operation”. They tagged the messages “Iamgay” or “Iamgay, not a pervert”.
To date, the subject has generated almost 800 million views, roughly twice the number of Sina Weibo users.
“I am a mother of a gay man. My son and I love our country. No matter where we go, we tell people that we are from China because we are proud of this country. But what Weibo did today was mix homosexuality with pornography and violence… this is discrimination and an attack on sexual minorities. This is violence,” wrote activist Pu Chunmei.
Others posted messages such as “everyone is free to love” or images of rainbow-roads traversing mountains.
Then, in a rare example of a public protest resulting in change, Sina scrapped the ban, only 66 hours after issuing it. “Our clean-up campaign will no longer target homosexual content and will only focus on violent and pornographic content going forward. Thank you for your discussion and advice,” it said.
Campaigners were disappointed there was no apology and they vowed to continue the campaign with a new focus on the two SAPPRFT directives from last year.
China decriminalised homosexual intercourse in 1997 and homosexuality was removed from an official list of mental illnesses in 2001.
However, many organisations still perpetuate the idea that same-sex attraction is a problem and only 5% of Chinese homosexuals are fully open about their sexuality, one study by Beijing LGBT Centre found.
This January a student at Southern China Agricultural University in Guangdong took a publisher as well as e-commerce giant JD.com to court for selling textbooks describing lesbian or gay orientation as an “illness”. Last year another student from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou launched a similar case against the Ministry of Education for authorising the use of books with similar language.
At the same time films showing same-sex relationships have struggled to get official approval.
This year the Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name had to be dropped from the Beijing International Film Festival and Looking for Rohmer – billed as China’s first gay film – was only released after undergoing substantial edits.
Yet there are signs that attitudes are changing. After Sina Weibo issued the ban, the China Youth Daily published a commentary saying the company had “stigmatised a minority”, adding that “the target of this clean up was always meant to be obscene pornography” and this should not be equated with the gay community. The People’s Daily also published a commentary advocating minority rights. “Eliminating prejudice and understanding differences” is an important part of modern society, it said. The piece carried the headline: “Different Fireworks Can Also Sparkle”.
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