China’s Largest Pride Event Suspended as LGBT Activism Faces Hurdles
While Pride month celebrations took place across the globe, China saw a notable absence of major LGBT events. The country’s largest Pride event, organized by a group called ShanghaiPride, has been suspended since 2021 without a given reason. The cancellation of upcoming activities and the break from scheduling future events left the community without its primary platform for celebration.
Political protests in China often result in punishment, leading ShanghaiPride to focus on alternative forms of expression. Instead of holding parades, the organization arranged dance parties, community runs, and film screenings in the city. However, these low-profile events, such as “voguing balls,” where dancers execute moves inspired by model poses, are the only remaining options available for the LGBT community.
Regrettably, ShanghaiPride is not the only major LGBT group to cease operations in recent years. Several others have been forced to shut down, raising concerns about a crackdown on activism within the world’s second-largest economy. In 2021, dozens of WeChat accounts dealing with LGBT topics were reportedly deleted, further limiting the space for open discussions. Additionally, a group that filed lawsuits on behalf of LGBT community members closed down, allegedly due to its founder’s detainment by authorities. The group’s closure was a condition for his release.
The Beijing LGBT Center, the last large LGBT organization in China, recently followed suit by halting operations. Raymond Phang, the co-founder of ShanghaiPride, stated that “with the closure of the Beijing LGBT Center, the last large LGBT organization in China has decided to take a break.” The mounting pressure on ShanghaiPride leaders and advocates, coupled with the increasing challenges in organizing events, prompted the decision to pause operations and wait for a more favorable environment.
Challenges and Consequences Faced by LGBT Activists
According to Daxue Consulting, a China-focused market research firm, an estimated 75 million people in China identified as LGBT in 2019, accounting for around 5% of the total population. LGBT groups have been actively campaigning on various issues, including the recognition of same-sex marriage, which remains unacknowledged in the country.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, and in 2001, the Chinese Society of Psychiatry stopped classifying it as a mental disorder. In 2019, the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, recognized the legalization of same-sex marriage as one of the top citizen requests. However, the space for LGBT advocacy has gradually diminished, coinciding with a broader clampdown on civil rights movements and online dissent.
In 2021, China’s education ministry caused controversy with a notice suggesting that young Chinese men had become too “feminine.” The ministry recommended schools to overhaul their physical education offerings and strengthen the recruitment of teachers. It further advised schools to “vigorously develop” particular sports such as football, with the aim of “cultivating students’ masculinity.”
Later in the same year, China’s broadcasting regulator announced a ban on “effeminate” aesthetics in entertainment shows, cautioning against the inclusion of “vulgar influencers.” The National Radio and Television Administration pledged to promote more masculine images of men and criticized male celebrities who used excessive makeup.
Amidst these developments, some LGBT individuals gained prominence. One notable figure is former police officer Ma Baoli, who left a nearly two-decade-long career in law enforcement to start a gay dating app called Blued. His technology company, BlueCity, debuted on the US-based Nasdaq stock exchange in 2020, becoming the world’s first publicly-traded LGBT social network. However, BlueCity was subsequently de-listed and privatised in August, and Mr. Ma resigned as its chairman and chief executive, citing the challenges of running an LGBT business in China.
Striving for Change Despite Limited Advocacy Space
China’s LGBT activists face mounting pressure, as organizers have been detained, and their friends and family members subjected to police questioning. These circumstances result in significant mental health pressure for those advocating social change. The environment for LGBT groups was once favorable before the pandemic, allowing for the voicing of concerns and legal victories. However, the growing restrictions have made the advocacy landscape increasingly challenging.
Timothy Hildebrandt, an associate professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, points out that these problems are exacerbated in countries with higher levels of societal and familial discrimination. Despite the limited space for advocacy currently, individuals, grassroots organizations, and corporations can continue advocating within their own spaces. By being creative in reaching out to the community and allies, support can still be extended to China’s LGBT community.
Raymond Phang, having organized ShanghaiPride for a decade, now supports the country’s LGBT community from overseas. With the limited events of ShanghaiPride, he has more opportunities to aid other community organizations and participate in their events. Although the current circumstances provide limited space for advocacy, the determination to strive for change should not waver.