While the influence of transnational networks cannot be overstated, understanding the nuances of China's LGBTQ+ community requires a deeper dive into its socio-cultural landscape.

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In 2020, ShanghaiPRIDE announced that it was going on a hiatus and “taking a break” from organising any future events, sending shockwaves through China’s LGBTQ+ community and signalling the shuttering of already limited spaces for gender identity and sexual orientation expression in the country. As a cornerstone of Pride celebrations in mainland China, since its inception in 2009, Shanghai PRIDE’s sudden pause underscores the precariousness of LGBTQ+ activism in a nation where societal attitudes and state policies often clash with the principles of equality and inclusivity.  

The notion of Pride, tracing its origins to the historic Stonewall riots of 1969, is deeply ingrained in Western narratives of LGBTQ+ liberation. Yet, its transplantation into China's cultural fabric reveals a complex interplay between global LGBTQ+ movements and local activism. While the influence of transnational networks cannot be overstated, understanding the nuances of China's LGBTQ+ community requires a deeper dive into its socio-cultural landscape.

Chinese LGBTQ+ Activism: Origins and Socio-Cultural Context 

LGBTQ+ activism in China burgeoned in the 1990s when cosmopolitan queer Chinese, Western intellectuals and Chinese activists began to gather in urban spaces like bars to discuss queer politics and advocate for queer rights. Further, the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 proved to be a milestone, catalysing the emergence of LGBTQ+ activism alongside feminist movements in China. This first wave of LGBTQ+ activism received further attention with the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in China, with international NGOs coming forward to fund HIV/AIDS prevention work as well as NGOs that primarily focused on serving the Chinese gay community. 

These events led to the mushrooming of several grassroots LGBTQ+ organisations and NGOs fuelled by international support such as the Beijing Gay Lesbian and Allies Discussion (BGLAD) and the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute which played a significant role in empowerment, community-building and advocacy for (urban) queer Chinese. Public awareness campaigns were promoted such as for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia by such groups to enable queer individuals to “come out” of isolation. However, as more organisations began to promulgate antidiscrimination for the LGBTQ+ cause in China, the trajectory of LGBTQ+ activism in China took divergent paths. 

This movement was predominated by gay (tongzhi 同志, meaning comrade) men, that mainly focused on the understanding of sexuality vocalised by cisgender, urban middle-class Han Chinese men, appropriating terms like LGBTQ+ in their queer lexicon while simultaneously overshadowing the experiences of queer women and other marginalized communities. In contrast in the mid-2000s, the lala (queer women, consisting of lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, gender non-conforming individuals and other diverse gender expressions fall under this umbrella term) movement in China began as a grassroots movement operating in the periphery, separate to the tongzhi movement with considerably lesser public visibility and influence in the overarching Chinese queer movement. This divide, epitomized by the tongzhi-lala dichotomy, underscores the need for a more inclusive approach (both in China and globally) that amplifies diverse intersections of gender, sexuality and even class within the LGBTQ+ spectrum in China. 

State Response to LGBTQ+ Activism 

While China has refrained from an explicit condemnation of homosexuality, traditional values and notions of social harmony often clash with LGBTQ+ rights. The state’s response to LGBTQ+ activism reflects this delicate balancing act between tacit tolerance and implicit repression. This ambivalence is highlighted in China’s three no’s policy (san bu zhengce): no approval, no disapproval, no promotion (bu zhichi, bu fandui, bu tichang), which cautiously prioritises social stability over individual rights and freedoms. 

This policy sees itself manifest particularly within the areas of healthcare, education and media, further complicating advocacy efforts. For example, from 2010-2017, Beijing Normal University Press published a series of sexual education books for primary school students called Cherish Lives (生命) to provide comprehensive sexual education. However, due to the backlash these books received from parents, it was officially removed in 2019. Furthermore, political propaganda often perpetuates stereotypes and stigmatises LGBTQ+ identities as western and therefore, antithetical to traditional Confucian values.

Often, governmental intervention may manifest beyond policy, through intangible barriers and psychological coercion. For instance, in 2009 the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) issued a “Notice on Issues Related to the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated by Domestic Institutions” which imposed restrictions on the volume of foreign funds that could be donated to domestic NGOs and introduced additional layers of scrutiny and complex requirements to the approval process. This highlights the government’s tight grip on civic discourse and encroachment into the civic space. Given that the Chinese state’s vision of a “harmonious society” aligns with the fields of poverty, health, and education and are overly cautious of “promoting” openly LGBTQ+ organisations, almost no NGOs dedicated to LGBTQ+ advocacy are formally registered with the local civil affairs bureaus in China. In this stifling environment, they aim to function within a grey zone, wherein they are not legally protected but can still operate without interference from governmental authorities.  

Connection with Global LGBTQ+ Activism 

Despite these challenges, the influence of international LGBTQ+ rights activism cannot be overstated as it has played a critical role in raising awareness, advocating for reforms and establishing transnational networks for the LGBTQ+ community, which has made a huge impact on localised queer discourse in China as well as nudged queer activism in China towards an outward focus. 

The UN’s condemnation of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation as well as the affirmation of LGBTQ+ rights from several countries resulted in an increase in interest and financial backing from foreign governments, and international organisations for Chinese LGBTQ+ groups, bolstering their efforts to carve out safe spaces and advocate for systemic change. For instance, ShanghaiPRIDE was supported by consulates in Shanghai from countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada and Finland. 

While direct policy influence remains elusive in China, grassroots organisations are reshaping institutional narratives. Through collaboration with professionals, they navigate the complexity of influence by leveraging expertise to drive subtle reforms within healthcare, education, and media sectors. International organisations working on LGBTQ+ advocacy can teach queer activists in China how to develop their own frameworks of activism, geared towards governmental, legal and policy particularly. For instance, organisations like Asia Catalyst and China Development Brief, work towards building advocacy capacity and social development in grassroots groups in Asia.

Challenges of Globalising Queer Discourse in China

Nevertheless, in the realm of queer discourse, one of the greatest hurdles for transnational LGBTQ+ networks is navigating the complex socio-cultural landscape of China, as cultural and institutional barriers impede the localisation of global queer discourse. In the China LGBT Community Leader Conference organised by Beijing Gender Health Education Institute in 2013, there was debate surrounding whether the term LGBTQ+ (or even queer) and global queer praxis could be applied appropriately to the queer movement in China. While acknowledging the impact of global narratives, addressing China's queer rights requires a deeper understanding of local nuances. 

Despite increasing visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+, Chinese society largely remains conservative and prejudiced against queer communities. The influx of Western funding often prioritises legal advocacy, visibility campaigns and urban narratives, overlooking the nuanced realities of LGBTQ+ life in China. Western categorisations like "LGBTQ+" may gain currency, but they risk homogenising local identities, erasing the nuanced intersections of ethnicity, class, gender and demography that define China's queer landscape. Western-centric approaches to advocacy may clash with local priorities and strategies, leading to friction and misalignment. Bridging this gap requires a nuanced approach—one that respects and understands local contexts while integrating global principles.

China's LGBTQ+ landscape embodies an interplay of tradition, state control, and global influence. For transnational queer groups and networks to understand why Western rights-based advocacy finds such difficulty in localised translation, they must look into the uniqueness of the socio-cultural setting and how existing institutions function locally in mainland China. For example, the institution of family is one of the biggest barriers towards queer rights discourse in China. The PFLAG China (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Tongxinglian Qinyou Hui) is a popular and influential NGO, largely due to the involvement of supportive parents who leverage shared family values. However, in 2021, the rebranding of PFLAG China as "Trueself", aligning its mission with state narratives of “actively promoting family harmony” and families as the basis for “national development, national progress, and social harmony", exemplifies the precariousness between global solidarity and local adaptation.  Nonetheless, LGBTQ+ activism in China is a testament to the power of local voices and the importance of context in shaping queer movements. The complexities of global LGBTQ+ solidarity can be navigated by fostering a truly inclusive movement that embraces the richness of China's queer tapestry.

Image courtesy: ShanghaiPRIDE

Author

Ahana Roy is Research Associate and Chief Operations Officer at Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). She is a postgraduate in Political Science with International Relations from Jadavpur University. Her areas of interest include non-traditional security studies with a focus on gender and sexuality studies, society, and culture in China specifically and East Asia broadly. She can be reached on Twitter @ahanaworks and her email ahana.1604@gmail.com

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