China: From Stonewall to Firewall

Overnight, a community can be swiped empty. It was around the 14th of April when users of China’s biggest social media platform, SinaWeibo, awoke to the complete disappearance of the popular super topic ‘les’ (lesbian). The super topic, similar to our ‘tag’, had once boasted over 46 million posts and reached up to  140,000 followers. Upon the discovery, users flooded the site in protest. “We Are Les,” proclaimed the torrent of angry posts, pushing the term ‘les’ onto Weibo’s top searched items. Alongside this was an outpouring of selfies that showed women with mouths taped shut by black crosses, a single red tear painted beneath their eyes. The backlash coloured Weibo in a rainbow flag. Not long after that, China’s notorious messaging app, WeChat, banned the use of all rainbow emojis in usernames.

This is not the first time that LGBTQ communities have faced censorship within China’s cyberspace. Last year, a “clean-up” campaign was launched by Weibo that included the removal of all LGBTQ content, categorising it within the realms of violence and pornography. After an outburst of personal letters, threats of legal action, and protests against the company, the decision was reversed — a small leap of success for a community that has yet again vanished within keystrokes. Much like the grim implications of recent events, it points to increasingly strict control over public morality and Internet freedom within China’s digital spaces.

Social media platforms like Weibo have to follow regulatory guidelines enforced by the Chinese government. Known as the ‘Great Firewall’, these guidelines are implemented under opaque standards that allow not only for their malleability but their ambiguity. This gives every opportunity for the government to eliminate undesirable content on the Internet by classifying it as corrupted or pornographic. These online restraints have only grown tighter over the years. Under President Xi Jinping, these restraints have severely intensified to not only secure China’s cyber-sovereignty but to enforce a standard of social morality forged by the government. This is a standard that categorises homosexuality as part of ‘abnormal sexual relations’ akin to incest, perversion, sexual assault, and violence according to the 2016 censorship guidelines issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Read more via Honi Soit