Chinese students sue education ministry over rainbow flag penalty

Rainbow flag has become ‘target of surveillance’ for university authorities rooting out activism, says scholar

March 3, 2023
Rainbow flag
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Two students at a leading Chinese institution who were penalised for giving away rainbow flags on campus are suing China’s Ministry of Education, despite the poor odds of a legal victory.

The Tsinghua University students, identified by their surnames, Huang and Li, filed the petition at a court in Beijing last month, according to regional media.

The step follows disciplinary action against them in July 2022; two months earlier, the pair had allegedly left rainbow flags on the counter of a campus supermarket. Since then, they have sought – unsuccessfully – to have the decision overturned by the university and by the Ministry of Education, the South China Morning Post reported.

Their move comes amid an increasingly repressive environment in Chinese universities for gay scholars and students, with researchers reporting a steady increase in pressure on non-conforming scholars leading up to another five-year term for Xi Jinping as president.

In February 2021, a Chinese court ruled in favour of a publisher that described homosexuality as a “psychological disorder” in a university textbook. That summer, dozens of queer students at prestigious Chinese universities had their social media accounts abruptly closed by the Chinese app WeChat.

Cui Le, a researcher in queer issues in Chinese education, told Times Higher Education that the Tsinghua students’ experience was a case study on the campus environment for LGBTQ+ students in China.

“This case shows that the rainbow flag – the symbol of queer pride and solidarity – has become a target of surveillance and censorship by the university authorities, who are vigilant against any form of student activism. Within such a repressive and homophobic climate, queer students may have to manage their queer identity more cautiously, and it is increasingly dangerous and risky for them to mobilise and organise queer-specific activities,” he noted.

He praised the students for taking legal action, despite his lack of optimism about their prospects of a victory in court, given the outcome of previous similar cases.

“I see agency and resilience in these students who chose to sue the Ministry of Education even though they are unlikely to win,” he said.

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