Written by Jamie J. Zhao

During China’s airing of the international singing competition Eurovision on 9 May 2018, scenes featuring a gay romance and a tattooed singer were cut out, and images of the LGBT pride symbol—a rainbow flag—held by the live studio audience were blurred. On 10 May 2018, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) banned China’s future airing of Eurovision because the censorship contradicts EBU’s ‘values of universality and inclusivity and … proud tradition of celebrating diversity through music’.

This incident happened in a particularly awkward moment in China. Less than one month ago, on 13 April 2018, a three-month ban on homosexual content was announced by the popular Chinese social networking platform, Sina Weibo. Weibo’s ban was framed as an effort to ‘create a sunny and harmonious community environment’. Yet, it was reversed on 16 April 2018 due to the large-scale online backlash and the party-state’s official newspaper People’s Daily’s criticism of this homophobic purging. Four days after the censoring of Eurovision, on 13 May 2018, two girls were assaulted by five male security guards at the Beijing 798 Art Zone for wearing the rainbow badges handed out by an LGBT activist there. The assault was reportedly aimed at stopping ‘illegal activities’ signalled by wearing the sign of ‘the homosexuals’ and the ‘distorted sexual orientation’.

Two intertwined discourses stand out in these homosexuality-related public events: one is self-censorship; the other is the political-ideological manipulation of LGBTQ cultures. Homosexuality was decriminalised in China in 1997 and de-pathologized in 2001. Yet, the ambiguous, inconsistent, and ‘generative’ regulatory practices of Chinese censorship systems often led to the self-censoring acts of not only celebrities, grassroots publics, and LGBTQ-identified media practitioners but also mainstream media producers and communicative platforms.

The political energy of LGBTQ movements has often been attacked as a form of transnational ‘collusion’ between domestic political saboteurs and foreign anti-China forces.

For instance, in 2016, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television issued a series of regulations that equated homosexuality with ‘incest, perversion’, and other ‘abnormal sexual relations’. The stipulations banned homosexual content for its potential promotion of ‘unhealthy’, ‘negative’, ‘vulgar’, and ‘harmful’ meanings that are considered detrimental to familial and social harmonies. Even in the People’s Daily’s seemingly homosexual-supportive commentary in April 2018, there was an obvious intention to silence social disharmony (potentially caused by the public’s protest against Weibo’s ban) by urging homosexual people to behave as ‘normal citizens’ and maintain their social responsibilities. These official statements, especially when being published in the heavily politicised online forum ‘Strong Nation Community’, seem less to care about gender and sexual equality and more about ideological indoctrination to maintain China’s social-political stability.

Intriguingly, Eurovision was aired by Mango TV, the online broadcaster of China’s provincial TV station Hunan TV, which has been famous for importing and adapting Western and East Asian TV programmes. After EBU terminated its broadcasting deal, Hunan TV spokesmen responded that they ‘weren’t aware’ of the censorship.

In fact, it would be difficult for Hunan TV not to see Eurovision as a queer show. While the state broadcaster CCTV once broadcast Eurovision in 2013, Hunan TV started live-broadcasting its semi-finals and finals in 2015. The most sensational moment of Eurovision in recent years was when the Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst, who later became a global gay icon, won the show in 2014. Moreover, the openly-out American Idol singer Adam Lambert was invited to perform at the 2015 Tmall Double-11 Global Shopping Festival broadcast by Hunan TV. Additionally, in 2011, the popular talk show broadcast by Hunan TV, Day Day Up, featured the two main actresses of Thai lesbian movie Yes Or No. Another Thai tomboy lesbian celebrity, Phuawryne Keenan, was also invited to Day Day Up in 2012. Even in currently running programmes aired by Hunan/Mango TV, such as the variety music show Come Sing With Me, queer personas, genders, and relationships are often deliberately high-profiled.

Numerous examples can be raised to show that LGBTQ cultures are not ‘taboo in China’s entertainment industry where same-sex relationships are banned from television screens’. Queer performances, meanings and desires have been not only visible but also constantly fashionized, commercialised, and ‘positively legitimized’ in mainstream entertainment. Particularly, Hunan/Mango TV has a long history of importing, broadcasting, and cashing in on ‘politically innocuous’ queer pop, although explicit discussions on LGBTQ identities, rights and politics can rarely be seen in their programmes.

For example, in April 2018, on Mango TV’s reality parenting show Mamas Are Superwomen, the female celebrity Bao Wenjing wore a black jacket with a large rainbow pattern on the back and some rainbow-coloured strips hanging on the sleeves. Several English words, ‘Love Has No Gender’, are printed on the rainbow on the back of the jacket. The jacket is only one of many designs featuring a rainbow sign from the Chinese fashion brand ‘lalabobo’, which imitates a Japanese Kawaii, colourful style. While the rainbow flag as a classic symbol for the LGBTQ movement originated in the 20th-century United States, lalabobo promotes ‘rainbow’ as a ‘candy girly’ fashion style within an inter–East Asian context that represents hope, good mood, and beautiful weather. Even though to some people, the pattern on the jacket is clearly a (Westernised) expression of LGBTQ culture, the ‘de-politicised’ fashioning of rainbow, situated in a hyper-heteronormative programme about mother-child relationships, did not concern Mango TV as an expression of ‘negative’ meanings. Thus, its images remained uncensored.

Ironically, in one game segment in the variety show aired by Hunan TV, Happy Camp, broadcast on 30 December 2017, two celebrities wore a one-piece sweater with a front pattern showing Santa Claus holding a rainbow with the English word ‘Naughty’ above the rainbow. This pattern was blurred in the official version of the episode circulated online. The producers explained that the clothes had ‘unhealthy guiding patterns’. This oversensitive regulatory act can be explained as the TV station’s own proactive response to the new wave of crackdowns on ‘low taste’, ‘decadent’ cultures (including tattoos, hip-hop, and cultural products that do not ‘adhere to mainstream socialist core values’) that was officially enforced by the state’s media censors in January 2018. In an online article published on a Chinese entertainment website in May 2018 titled ‘How Strong Is Mango TV’s Desire to Survive?’, a number of Mango TV’s unreasonable self-censoring acts over the years, such as blurring the faces of South Korean stars on its shows during recent Sino-Korean political conflicts, were listed.

Some netizens believe Mango TV’s censoring of homosexual content in Eurovision marks a ‘major step backwards’ of Chinese society. Nevertheless, if one moves beyond the conversations about progress and regress by delving into the multifaceted discrimination, marginalisation, silencing, and manipulation of LGBTQ cultures in China during a globalist age, a more depressing story will emerge. Even in late-2010s China, the political energy of LGBTQ movements has often been attacked as a form of transnational ‘collusion’ between domestic political saboteurs and foreign anti-China forces. Meanwhile, the queer information and aesthetics flowing in and through contemporary Chinese televisual space, such as androgynous celebrities, cross-dressing performances, portrayals of homosociality, and same-sex fantasies in stardom and fandom, have been widely celebrated since the early 2000s. These queer representations do not necessarily signal an open-minded, LGBTQ-friendly media world. Instead, their social-political implications are often mutated, if not completely erased, so that they carry no obvious sign of threatening the hetero-patriarchal-endorsed Chinese neoliberalism and globalisation.

This hypocritical capitalisation of queer pop is particularly distressing. It points to a hideous reality and perhaps also a formidable future where queer pop becomes a handy, profitable, yet dispensable accessory for a TV industry desperate to thrive within and survive from a heteronormative, authoritarian society.

Jamie J. Zhao is a Global Queer Media scholar at the University of Warwick. She thanks Hongwei Bao, Karl Schoonover, Helen Wheatley and Elena Gorfinkel for inspiring her to explore China’s recent censoring of Eurovision. Image Credit: CC by Eurovisionary.

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