LGBT+ groups from Chinese universities silenced on social media

Online ban is ‘unprecedented’ in scale and likely involved cooperation from multiple parties, expert says

July 9, 2021
Warning Sign Keep the doors closed (in Chinese)
Source: iStock

WeChat, one of the world’s largest social media platforms and an essential part of daily communication in China, has shut the accounts of LGBT+ student groups from at least 11 universities, including the country’s top-ranked Tsinghua University, Peking University and Fudan University.

Institutions across the country – in cities such as Wuhan, Nanjing, Chengdu and Xi’an – were also affected. After the sudden crackdown, any attempt to access the accounts either resulted in error messages saying they “violated regulations” or turned up no searchable items at all.

Hongwei Bao, author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China and associate professor in media studies at the University of Nottingham, told Times Higher Education that “the scale of the ban this time seems unprecedented”, in that it was a collective action, as opposed to the shuttering of individual accounts.

“It seems that this move was well planned and coordinated” and likely required cooperation between higher education departments, universities and social media companies, he said.

Dr Bao warned of a chilling effect that went beyond campuses.

“Gender and sexual minorities rely heavily on social media in communication, and this ban will not only destroy their social relations and the communities they built, but also send a warning message to all students and teachers, and to civil society overall,” he said.

“University campuses are often known as a free space for public speech and exploration of new ideas. This space seems to be shrinking rapidly under the current environment, unfortunately.”

John Wei, author of Queer Chinese Cultures and Mobilities and a lecturer at the University of Otago, told THE that the space for discourse was narrowing.

“Universities and student groups generally had a bit more leeway in the past decade, but apparently this has changed now, given that social media can amplify their voices and mobilise activism,” he said, adding that he suspected the state’s main concerns were “self-organisation and civil mobilisation on campus”.

“The timing is also interesting – to minimise risk of organised resistance,” he said. “Students have started their summer break, and the latest graduates may have already left the campus.”

He suggested that “new ways of strategic and systematic thinking in the context of China” would be needed to better integrate LGBT+ people into society and education. The framing of the issue as “a political and ideological battle” simply “doesn’t work” in the Chinese system.

“The state, the academy and society should work together to include the LGBTQ population and acknowledge their contribution rather than turning a blind eye or pitting the issue as a ‘Western ideology’ against China’s rise and revival – that’s simply not true,” he said.

While queer studies does exist in China, the field “has never become sufficient or ‘fully emerged’ in terms of visibility and research opportunities”, Dr Wei said.

“Queer expressions and discourses that are limited to objective research may still be possible, while the ‘scholar-activist’ model common in Western countries has always been difficult in China,” he concluded. “Student activism and self-organisation will face an even harder time from now on.”

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