LGBTQ Spaces Are Shrinking in China
The closure of a Beijing advocacy group reflects a gradual trend under Xi.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: An LGBTQ advocacy group in Beijing shuts down, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs doubles down on nationalist rhetoric, and disapproved-of books disappear from library shelves in Hong Kong.
LGBTQ Advocacy Group Shuts Down
The Beijing LGBT Center, an advocacy group founded in 2008, suddenly announced its closure this week. The center began its work amid optimism that China was opening up, and it became a beacon for LGBTQ rights in the country. There wasn’t a reason provided for the closure, but the announcement referred to “force majeure”—a common euphemism for government action which has been used by other groups forcibly shut down in the era of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It remains unclear if the police or city authorities ordered the Beijing LGBT Center to shut down, or if it continuing its work had become impossible without putting staff and the communities it served at risk. Like other civil society groups in China, the center had come under increasing pressure in recent years. As Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, put it to me, “You get forced into a stress position, and you believe you can hold it for a while, but eventually you collapse.”
In the last decade, measures from targeted police harassment to refused event permits have put LGBTQ spaces in China under pressure. In 2017, China Netcasting Services Association, a state-approved industry body, banned homosexuality in online broadcasting. The same year, a popular gay forum hosted by the website Tianya Club was shut down.
Yet even as discrimination against the LGBTQ community in China remained widespread, the Chinese public was becoming more tolerant. That shift in attitude helped the LGBTQ community push back against state-backed discrimination. In 2018, online outcry successfully stopped an attempt to ban LGBTQ content from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
However, in the past three years, city authorities have often shut down LGBTQ events, including the annual Shanghai Pride; this was officially a COVID-19 containment policy, but many bans remain. Discriminatory policies have increased, especially at universities, and government bodies have endorsed conversion therapy.
The burgeoning crackdown in part stems from homophobia and reactionary gender politics, but it also reflects the Xi-era Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) general hostility toward any group organized outside of state control. Furthermore, Chinese activist groups often share some crossover: For example, many feminists targeted by the state in recent years were also active in the LGBTQ movement.
Chinese activists are used to repression, but the closure of the Beijing LGBT Center is a powerful blow. “It just feels so utterly hopeless. I know that queers & feminists in China know how to work a loophole, a cat door, a hairline fracture, a whisper, a metaphor, but soon that’s too subtle and quiet to reach the people who need it,” Chinese Australian writer Jinghua Qian lamented this week on Twitter.
The crackdown comes amid a natalist policy push that leaves no room for nonheterosexual relationships. The same day that the Beijing LGBT Center closed, China’s Family Planning Association—an organization under the leadership of the CCP—announced pilot projects in more than 20 Chinese cities to promote a “new-era” culture of marriage and childbearing. Under China’s one-child policy, the Family Planning Association carried out mass sterilizations and forced abortions—which are still imposed on the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.
China’s dire demographic numbers have spurred the Family Planning Association on, particularly after the switch to a two-child policy in 2016 didn’t lead to a bump in the country’s birthrate. LGBTQ rights and feminism don’t fit with the model that the association and other government organizations, such as the All-China Women’s Federation, now advocate, which includes encouraging educated women to give up work to start a family. Gender discrimination in China has risen since the end of the one-child policy.
Government campaigns have also focused on supposedly weakened traditional gender roles, particularly the fear that young men are becoming so-called sissy men. Such rhetoric actually goes back to the turn of the 20th century, when some Chinese reformers portrayed the supposed weakness of Chinese men as a cause of the country’s suffering and encouraged military drills and athletic programs. Today’s rhetoric around masculinity targets everything from female fans of gay erotica to Korean pop idols.
Nonetheless, China’s government still hasn’t adopted the intense homophobia seen in other autocracies, such as Russia. Positive portrayals of the LGBTQ community still occasionally—if increasingly rarely—appear in state media, for example. Yet it’s possible that all could be changing—especially if Chinese leaders pick up on narratives that portray LGBTQ people as stalking horses for Western ideology.
What We’re Following
Diplomacy and conspiracy. Some commentators have hailed last week’s meetings between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese diplomat Wang Yi as a rare bright spot in China-U.S. relations. Sullivan and Wang held eight hours of talks over two days in Vienna, and the readouts from both sides largely matched up, focusing on stabilizing the relationship and managing Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But looking at statements from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the last week, it’s hard to see the Sullivan-Wang talks as a breakthrough.
At a press briefing last week, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused the United States of working on “genetically engineered weapons” to target specific groups, including “Asian Chinese.” (That unfounded claim goes back at least 20 years and has been repeated in books by Chinese military intellectuals.) China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused Washington of everything from economic coercion to regime change in recent days.
This year, the United States has reportedly delayed certain actions in the service of diplomacy, including imposing sanctions or releasing the FBI report on China’s spy balloon. Meanwhile, China doubles down on conspiracy theories and raids foreign firms on its soil. If anything, Washington’s current tactics seem likely to reward Beijing’s ultranationalism.
The White House’s desire to find a so-called floor for the relationship is understandable—but it’s possible that the reasonable officials that the Biden administration is seeking out aren’t the ones in charge in China.
Hong Kong library censorship. Hong Kong officials are systematically removing books that the Chinese government disapproves of from the city’s libraries. Thousands of volumes, including critiques of communism and unapproved accounts of Chinese history, have disappeared from shelves in the last year. Since Beijing’s national security law took effect in Hong Kong in 2020, authorities have gradually implemented a mainland-style censorship, threatening the city’s once-vibrant cultural and political heritage.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has defended the measures, claiming that texts are still available in bookstores, but both sellers and publishers have started to self-censor. China’s censorship ambitions may not be limited to its own borders. Some Taiwanese citizens who purchased copies of the 2021 speculative bestseller If China Attacks online have received threatening calls from the mainland. (As Taiwanese reporter Brian Hioe put it, the calls are more comic than terrifying.)
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Tech and Business
Youth unemployment hits record high. China’s unemployment rate for youth ages 16-24 has officially hit 20.4 percent, and some observers suspect the actual number is even worse. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Chinese businesses hard, with any recovery yet to show up in the job market. Twelve million new graduates will hit the workforce next month. Their prospects won’t be helped by the government crackdowns on tech, education, entertainment, and gaming—all fields particularly popular with recent graduates.
Youth unemployment numbers were already rising before the pandemic, driven in part by automation and digitization, especially in retail. The grim outlook has led some young people to adopt slogans like “lying flat” and “the last generation;” they see themselves as trapped by the parents’ demands, the lack of creative possibilities, and the end of China’s boom years.
The CCP is well aware of how unemployment contributed to the Tiananmen protests in 1989 as well as the Arab Spring, which it has studied closely. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the government force large companies to create extra jobs—likely with low pay and little chance of advancement.
Soccer crackdown. The intense anti-corruption investigation into China’s Super League, which started last November, has swept up its first international star, South Korean soccer player Son Jun-Ho. In 2020, Son led his team to the top of the Korean league before joining China’s Shandong Taishan FC, which won the Super League the next year. It’s unclear exactly what charges Son faces, but he could become another tension point between Beijing and Seoul.
Match-fixing allegations are common in Chinese soccer, but the problem isn’t limited to one sport: Other Chinese leagues have also seen accusations against teams. Although gambling is illegal in China, it’s a massively popular pastime; syndicates thus stand to make a lot of money from fixed sports matches. Much of the industry runs through so-called mirror websites of legal online sports gambling outlets in the United States and United Kingdom.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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