The authorities in China are tightening censorship of LGBT+ content online.
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly's Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 23 September 2021.
Rather than motivated by homophobia the crackdown seems to be motivated by the state’s deepening intolerance of all forms of organisation. We doubt that this will translate into security risks for the citizens in China or foreign travellers for now, for example police tracking users who engage with this content online.
Rising state hostility towards the LGBT+ community is unlikely to lead to worsening social stigma, however. Same-sex couples face a much more challenging legal environment than heterosexual people in China. But physical or verbal harassment of identifiably gay or lesbian people, for example, is rare in cities. And all the evidence we have seen suggests that the younger generation generally has a much more liberal position on sexuality than the CCP.
The latest effort at censorship of LGBT+ content online is the most comprehensive yet. International press reporting suggests that the state pressured WeChat, a social media platform, to suspend more than a dozen LGBT+ groups affiliated with universities in July. And a US media outlet reported last month that a local messaging platform blocked searches of words such as ‘LGBTQ’ and ‘gay’.
We have not seen any evidence to suggest that the police are tracking users who engage with or post LGBT+ content online. And we doubt they will do so anytime soon. Unlike content relating to Xinjiang for example, the authorities do not appear to see the LGBT+ community as a threat towards the state. There has been little sign that LGBT+ activists are using these online platforms to criticise the state or organise protests over LGBT+ rights in China.
Rather, it seems that the LGBT+ community has been caught up in wider efforts by the authorities to deter any organised groups that operate outside of state structures. For instance, in 2018 the state authorities similarly cracked down on student Marxist organisations across the country. LGBT+ groups on social media also seem to have attracted greater traction among the younger generation in recent years, which has probably prompted the authorities to start censoring them.
The authorities also appear to be seeking to disrupt organised LGBT+ community events. According to LGBT+ activists cited in the international press in July it is becoming ‘more and more challenging’ to organise events and raise acceptance around LGBT+ issues. And last month, a university in Shanghai has reportedly asked for lists of LGBT+ students for ‘investigation’ on their political stance and ‘state of mind’ according to a purported university directive shared on social media platforms.
Even if these efforts by the authorities increase, as is likely, we doubt that the police would seek to detain LGBT+ activists organising such events. For one, doing so would almost certainly prompt a public backlash like that in 2017. Instead, and in line with established patterns of government crackdowns on sensitive issues such as human rights and advocacy, the authorities will probably gradually increase pressure and censorship so as to make it untenable for activists to persist, but continue to avoid targeting foreigners.
Rising state hostility towards LGTB+ related issues is unlikely to increase the very low physical security risks that LGBT+ face in China. Conservative attitudes persist in rural areas of the country. But China is generally a safe and secure environment for LGBT+ people. Several celebrities have publicly identified as LGBT+ in the past year leading to largely-supportive messages from the public. And based on conversations with our in-country contacts, incidents of physical harassment of LGBT+ persons are very rare in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Image: A transgender pride flag in Hangzhou on 3 December 2019; HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images