The author requested to remain anonymous.

During the release tour of his new book Queer Comrades, University of Nottingham academic Hongwei Bao was on the receiving end of one very consistent line of questioning. An obsession almost, of wondering whether the nascent LGBTQ+ rights movement in China could blame the Maoist regime of its suppression. But in doing so and focusing on the past, there was one key aspect that the questioning left out – and which the author was quick to point out.

Neoliberal cosmopolitanism has left the queer community in China fractured. By placing its centres of socialisation and power in urban middle class areas, there was a huge disconnect between the traditional understandings of queerness and the centring of the Western gaze. To be queer has become a form of belonging with a global community outside the borders of China itself. But the problem is that it is not a truly diverse and global space of belonging, but one dominated by a foreign narrative.

…backlash against queer identities from a nationalist perspective

Opening China to the World

Since the start of economic liberalisation in 1978, China has rapidly grown as an economy. It is a member of the World Trade Organisation and is the world’s largest trading power, with a 2012 estimated value of US$3.87 trillion in global trade. This has reflected itself in a growing middle class. If defined as those earning between US$10,000 and US$60,000 a year, that population had reached more than 300 million by 2012. This has concentrated itself in urban population centres which has consequently led to a developmental focus in those areas.

As a result of this urban spread, China has a high level of income inequality, with a Gini Coefficient – where the closer the number is to 1.000, the higher the level of inequality – of 0.474 in 2012, although an independent study in the same year suggested it as high as 0.610. (The focus here on 2012 is because that was the last year all of these statistics were taken simultaneously. It is almost certain that the number of middle class income earners and the Gini Coefficient have both gone up since that time.)

The Queer Connection

As a result of this urban concentration of wealth, the general level of development across demographics has been focused on these areas. For the queer community, this was similarly reflected. Urban areas were also the most connected to global trends and, with the growth of the gay nightlife scene across the West, China likewise picked up a similar model in its cities. Reading through ethnographies like Queer Comrades shows how this experience is focused on personal freedoms to enjoy leisure and pursuit of individual relationships.

An important connection is to do with the fact that Hong Kong has had a separate level of liberalisation under its British rule until 1997, and the subsequent reintegration into China has led to an outpouring of liberal and neoliberal thought outwards from the city. The 1991 Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance, as an example, prohibits governmental discrimination based on a multitude of characteristics, with queerness generally understood to fall under its protections even though it is not explicitly mentioned. Hong Kong also allows for the gender marker to be changed in legal documents such as identity cards and passports.

Similar levels of cosmopolitan queer liberalism are seen in the focus on corporate-focused Pride parades in cities like Shanghai, the longest-running such event in China. And queer popular culture like the gay web series Addicted (Heroin) did at least get off the ground.

The Failure of Neoliberalism

However, all of this has led to a backlash against queer identities from a nationalist perspective. Because the most visible parts of queerness have been focused on the urban middle class, almost exclusively male, and highly linked to Western notions of personal freedoms, the social acceptance of more traditional queerness has faltered.

Local queer artists like Fan Popo have had their work censored, either explicitly or implicitly, even getting to the point where even a court victory for his gay documentary Mama Rainbow has still not seen the film broadcast publicly. The previously-mentioned web series was banned in 2016 and an April 2018 decision by popular social media site Sina Weibo saw a high level of censorship around the all LGBTQ+-related content.

More worrying is the fact that there is still entrenched queerphobic practices and policy. Although individual court cases against gay conversion therapy have been successful, the practice itself is still legal. The high rates of marriage between queer men and straight women has been seen as a reason to not push for same-sex marriage and civil rights, even though that once again reinforces a Western notion of gay sexuality instead of recognising different types of romantic and sexual orientations that are more organic to Chinese society. Outside of very liberal Hong Kong, major support for same-sex rights in cities is less than 50 percent with a poll in Beijing peaking at 30 percent.

Conclusion

The most basic inference from this is to suggest that there is more work to be done by means of increasing queer rights. And while it is heartening to see some success in cities and urban centres, it is vital to note that even statistics for rural China are unavailable, let alone suggestions for concrete activism and policy-making. Urban cosmopolitanism may have empowered Chinese queer communities to follow the same liberalisation that the market has gone through, but it has lost what it means to be authentically queer in the local sense. China needs to regain that sense.

At the author’s request, Asia Dialogue is publishing this contribution anonymously as the author, a well-known activist, has suffered harassment as a result of their previous work.This article forms part of the Asia Dialogue edition of Queer Asia, in collaboration with the conference and film festival held at the British Museum, SOAS University of London, University of Warwick and UCL from 25 to 29 June 2018, exploring LGBTQ+ issues in Asia on the theme of “Bodies X Borders”. Image Credit: CC from Wikimedia Commons.

 

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