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How China keeps gay people off TV

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Caught up in the politics of censorship and extended traditionalism, Chinese homosexuals are finding themselves erased from the country’s popular culture

Films can disappear in China. So can entire TV shows. This is nothing new – as early as 2006 the Chinese government has been controlling online content. Recently however it’s been getting worse, as the government tightens the noose on what it deems acceptable online. Even then, a line was crossed last month when popular online streaming service LeTV (SIZE) announced that videos containing certain content are forbidden on the platform, including those that portray the “wrong concept of love, such as homosexuality and extramarital affairs”.

Chinese internet users were up in arms, but the site merely deleted the latter half of the sentence, keeping the ‘wrong concept of love’ part. In 2014, Xi Jinping reaffirmed that artists must work for the people and not be “slaves” to the market, a symbolic hat-tip to a famous speech by Mao Zedong. It was one of many instances under his premiership that the Communist Party has attempted to restrain artistic expression and curtail culture.

Following these comments, in December 2015, a slew of new directives were issued, which included a ban on “abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours.”

They also banned anything that undermined China’s territorial integrity, anything that harmed national security, promoted fear, gambling, crime, passed on knowledge of how to commit crimes, slander, profanity, and any excessive violence.

The directives, which spread over a number of pages, therefore banned almost the full gamut of behaviours, emotional responses, and social phenomenon that constitute exciting cinema in many other places across the world.

Importantly for the LGBT community, the directives explicitly marked out homosexual love, tong xing lian ai, as unacceptable – lumping it in the same category as incest, underage sex and bestiality.

This has come at a time when the LGBT community was starting to make serious headway in getting content with LGBT themes, be it openly gay or trans lead characters, or showing depictions of homosexual relationships as normal and not out of the ordinary, popular with a non-LGBT audience, thus helping to expand tolerance and understanding.

Concurrent to Shanghai’s parade-less Pride festival is a queer film festival. To better understand what’s been going on, I stopped by a talk with producers and the heads of content for Blued, Rela, and Lesdo, the three largest gay and lesbian dating apps in China, which are now trying to produce their own films and TV shows for their users.

Blued is now the largest homosexual dating app in the world with over 29 million users. It was founded in 2006 by a policeman in Hebei called Geng Le (he is also sometimes known as Ma Baoli). He operated the site secretly at night, worried that revealing his involvement would damage his reputation with his colleagues and possibly get him fired. The name for the site came from his memories of falling in love with a fellow student at the police academy, as they trained together by the ocean.

Following the trajectory of Blued provides a fairly accurate timeline of China’s gay awakening. Starting only five years after homosexuality stopped being classed as a mental illness, the site was initially taken down by censors under the rubric of the Civilised Internet wenming banwang 文明办网, China’s first and enduring attempt to place the internet within the loosely defined confines of acceptable culture. Geng Le repeatedly relaunched the site on fresh servers. It was only in 2008, as China came to host the Olympics and sought soft power victories, that the site was able to operate untroubled.

As the site grew, public health authorities came to understand that it had potential to help with increasing awareness of Aids, which had been steadily increasing in the absence of adequate public education. Blued, as a platform for homosexuals, was perfectly placed to help spread this information directly to the most at risk community. In recognition of his efforts, Geng Le was granted an audience with Premier Li Keqiang.

Blued is not the only app of its kind, though it is unquestionably the biggest. Lesdo and Rela are smaller players and primarily target lesbians.

These platforms are more than just gay or lesbian Tinder for the Chinese market. Aside from the sexual health information they put out and hosting forums for users to post comments and support each other, they are now moving into the entertainment space. Their aspirations are to create LGBT content using the same model as Netflix or Amazon.

Aside from the fact that these stories have a captive audience – in the case of Blued one that numbers in the tens of millions – there is also a hope that they could produce breakout shows popular with a non-LGBT audience.

The moderator stood up and acknowledged the fact that the previous year had been a blowout year for LGBT material. The word he used was intentionally double-edged in Mandarin; 井喷 jingpen – which is when an oil well explodes. This was an accurate description, because for many observers of the fledgling LGBT cultural sphere it was as if the sudden upsurge in interest, the gush created by shows such as Addicted and Go Princess Go, had met with the simmering fires of government unease, and ignited.

Addicted, about a homosexual couple at a high school in Beijing, was twelve episodes into a fifteen episode run when it disappeared from all of the major streaming sites in China. Shortly after, Go Princess Go, about a modern man who accidentally time travels and wakes up in ancient times as a woman, was also ordered offline. At the time of its censure, it had over 2.4billion views on Le.com. An online talk show, U Can U Bibi, saw an episode on coming out pulled from the web last July.

During the panel discussion, the issue of censorship was the elephant in the room. The conference, held with aspiring filmmakers in mind, had attracted a crowd of young directors, writers, and producers. Their questions were inevitably directed towards pragmatic issues: how could they get their films onto the various platforms, what were people interested in seeing, and was there a market.

Finally, as the panel was winding down, the moderator cut the questions from the audience short and said that they would have to finally address the censorship regime.

The panel all acknowledged the challenge that it posed and the need to make smart compromises. They also struck a defiant tone. The representative for Lesdo used the phrase, “don’t fear, don’t wait”. Lesdo, she told the audience, had had a film taken down shortly after Addicted was pulled. Sammy Wu from Rela made a similar comment, saying, even if it is a small step forward, then we must continue to take it.

The representative for Blued struck a slightly less upbeat note. He said that he had not seen much of his content censored, but that this was not a positive thing, because it represented the fact that nothing he had produced was popular enough to catch the censor’s eye. Yang Fangda of Lesbo said something similar to me in a message on Wechat after the conference, saying that where her platform hadn’t been ordered to take things down, it was likely because her platform had nowhere near the popularity of the larger streaming sites.  

The issue of popularity is central to whether or not something is censored. As the director Fan Popo, who has seen his documentaries about the LGBT community scrubbed from the internet, has argued in various interviews, it was only after a year or two, once Mama Rainbow, his most popular film, had reached around a million views that it was taken down. It seemed as if an invisible threshold had been crossed. Addicted and Go Princess Go were both enormously successful and popular shows.

“Even when producers do go ahead with projects, the censorship regime has lead to hypersensitivity and some frankly outrageous moves by content creators to remain on the right side of the directives”

However, popularity is an imperfect measure of whether or not something will run into problems with the censorship regime. As Popo argued in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the film The Imitation Game, which is about Alan Turing, a mathematician who is gay and struggles to find acceptance in British society, was popular and played widely in cinemas throughout China. The film grossed over 52 million yuan. “Is it because he is a foreigner, so it is okay for him to be gay?” Popo asked.

Even something as innocuous as Beauty & the Beast recently made headlines when the People’s Daily and a number of other CCP mouthpieces felt the need to draw attention to the fact that the film, which features a gay kiss, would be released uncensored. The film attracted controversy throughout Asia, with a conservative Catholic group in Hong Kong boycotting it and Malaysia attempting, unsuccessfully, to demand Disney to cut the scene. But it’s hardly a win for the LGBT community in China; the scene is tangential to the focal heteronormative relationship in the film, and China currently has the world’s most expensive Disney theme park sat just outside of its commercial capital, Shanghai. The fact that party-owned media felt the need to point to this tiny concession is itself indicative of the wider environment.

The fact is that with such expansive and abstractly defined regulations, it is extremely hard to understand exactly why any particular TV show or film is censored. SAAPRFT is intentionally vague when it commands something to be taken down; it simply ‘does not conform to regulations’ and must be removed. For every Addicted that gets taken down there is a Beauty & the Beast that makes it through.

This ambiguity is intentional; the logical conclusion of operating in an environment that constantly shifts is that self-censorship is common, not only from directors and writers but especially from investors, who inevitably shy away from backing anything that will see their investment literally disappear into thin air.

Even when producers do go ahead with projects, the censorship regime has led to hypersensitivity and some frankly outrageous moves by content creators to remain on the right side of the directives. The Empress of China, a blockbuster series about China’s only female emperor, played by China’s leading lady Fan Bingbing, was roundly criticised by censors, who accused the traditional costumes the actresses wore as being too revealing and louche. The producers forced the show to be re-edited – either cleavage was cropped out entirely, making the show an odd confusion of extreme close-ups, or, it was blurred out, like CCTV footage of underage offenders.

Another show, The Lost Tomb, was taken down from iqiyi.com, one of the top Chinese streaming sites, who had produced the series exclusively for their platform at a reported cost of roughly $750,000 USD an episode. The high-profile show was only allowed back online once key scenes were rewritten – the show is about a group of graverobbers, but graverobbing is prohibited within the December 2015 directives. To circumvent the censors, the show had to be reshot to include scenes of the characters presenting their loot to the relevant government department for approval.

Because the directives are so broad, and so many shows have been targeted for such a huge range of infractions, some argue that programmes like Addicted have not been deleted for their LGBT themes, but rather for specific problems with their content. In the show, Gu Hai, an affluent kid from a rich and well-connected family, pursues Bai Luo Yin, an outstanding student who comes from an impoverished background. Along with buying his family numerous gifts, Gu Hai uses his connections to get Bai Luo Yin’s father a plush job as an engineer at a state company and his stepmother a new storefront. In the midst of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, any show where the lead character openly states, “of course I pulled connections to do this – we’re in China and this is how things work” was hardly erring on the side of caution.

The lead characters names, when put together, also form the Chinese word for heroin 海洛因 Hailuoyin, and the show title Addicted has obvious narcotic connotations. Go Princess Go, with its billions of views, was even more popular than Addicted. While it did not feature corruption or drug allusions, the very premise of the show, time-travel, is a banned topic. The characters also use profanity liberally and there is plenty of sex, so the transgender plotline may well have just been one issue amongst many.

“Bill Clinton famously once said that China trying to censor the Internet would be like trying to nail Jello to a wall. It appears that China has finally found the right hammer for the job”

While some argue China is retrenching and turning away from the comparable liberalism of the late 2000s, there is an argument to be made that the liberalism and tolerance that followed the Olympics was the anomaly and not the norm. What we might be seeing today is that censorship technologies have finally caught up with the desires of the government. Bill Clinton famously once said that China trying to censor the Internet would be like trying to nail Jello to a wall. It appears that China has finally found the right hammer for the job.

The argument the CCP puts forward for wielding this hammer is that censorship is crucial to ensure social stability. It is a mistake to argue that China does not believe in human rights; rather they emphasize collective rights over the rights of the individual. As such, the government views the censorship regime as existing to streamline society and prevent a raucous tsunami of public opinion from rocking the boat too far. To the extent that the LGBT community has been caught in the politics of censorship, one must assume that underlying it all is this notion of stability.

Part of the Chinese Dream, the keynote policy of Xi Jinping, is the rejuvenation of the Chinese race, which goes hand-in-hand with maintaining and extending traditionalism. The government believes that this can only happen when China is stable.

If the government fears homosexuality, it does so because it goes against what is perceived as a traditional Chinese family. Part of the Chinese Dream, Xi’s keynote policy, is the rejuvenation of the Chinese race, which goes hand-in-hand with maintaining and extending traditionalism. The problem though is that one would be hard-pressed to look back in time and find a historical precedent for the ideal Chinese family. As with all revisionist movements, like Trump’s Make America Great Again, to do so requires a rose-tinted vision of the past at odds with the reality.

China is not a historically homophobic nation. While ancient China can’t be compared to ancient Greece or Rome, stories of homosexual love do exist in traditional Chinese texts. Homosexuals are occasionally referred to in China as having “the predilection of the cut sleeve” a term originating from the history of the Western Han dynasty, when the emperor Han Aidi was in bed with his lover Dong Xian. Not wanting to awake his lover, who had fallen asleep on the long sleeve of his imperial robe, the emperor used a knife to cut off his sleeve.

Traditional China was polygamous. Sex and marriage were not conflated until the Mao era abolished polygamy as a western decadence (and started to view homosexuality suspiciously for the same reason). To censor LGBT content as not compatible with traditional Chinese family values is therefore to skirt over or completely ignore the reality of traditional Chinese families.

In 2015, an LGBT activist in Hunan tried to register his group with the local government. They responded in writing to him, saying that homosexuality had no place in Chinese traditional culture and “the building of spiritual civilization” – one of the tenants of the Chinese Dream.

Chinese homosexuals are finding themselves locked out of the dream. According to a 2015 Pew survey, 61 per cent of China's population said that homosexuality was unacceptable. These attitudes can’t be changed when homosexual content is taken offline.

As Zhang Beichuan, a professor at Qingdao University Medical School and one of China’s leading scholars and voices on LGBT issues said to me, he used to believe that all the LGBT community needed in China was for the law to change. He now thinks differently. It isn’t a legal issue, but rather a cultural one. Even if the law changed today then the culture would not be in place to support it.

Gay rights are not just an issue for the LGBT community. A large portion of Zhang Beichuan’s research has focused on the phenomenon of Tongqi 同妻, who are woman who inadvertently marry gay men. Professor Zhang argues that in China 8 per cent per cent of male homosexuals will, because of a toxic combination of family and societal pressure, enter into traditional marriages with straight women. A conservative estimate from Beichuan’s research suggests that there are currently fourteen million heterosexual women married to gay men. Therefore, as the experience of the Tongqi shows, gay rights issues spill over and damage the lives of millions of heterosexual women. In the course of our interview Beichuan told me, “Equality for gays can’t come from standing on other peoples necks.” However, in the current circumstances, it is understandable that many of China’s homosexuals don’t see anywhere else to stand.

There is a fundamental flaw with China’s policy towards the LGBT community. When one looks closely at “the three nos” (no support, no opposition and no promotion) it is easy to understand the first two, which amount to “don’t ask, don’t tell” with Chinese characteristics. Considering China’s overall economic development, the government can be forgiven for not having pushed beyond this.

The third no, “no promotion”, however, is a bizarre misunderstanding of the reality of homosexuality. It suggests that the government believes that homosexuality is something that can be promoted, that like a new product or fashion it is something that we might see somewhere and then decide to identify with or try. This ignores the fact that homosexuality is not a decision someone makes but part of someone’s ontology.

Like a stone thrown into a still pool, the ripples of censorship travel far. Unable to promote itself, the LGBT community will struggle to educate people, and the spread of tolerance is likely to stall. Gays will still feel pressured to enter into straight marriages, subjugating women and enforcing patriarchal structures. This is far worse for the stability of China than any of the content being censored.