China’s Crackdown Has a Straight Eye for the Queer Guy
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- China officially has a “male feminization” problem. That’s not some throwaway line or social media meme. It’s actual policy from the nation’s education ministry, which plans to strengthen physical education for the nation’s adolescent boys to combat the phenomenon.
Beijing’s rewriting of social norms doesn’t end there, and will continue for years as President Xi Jinping leads a neo-Cultural Revolution that has already hit the education, technology and gaming sectors and is destined to spread further. His “common prosperity” doctrine — aimed at evening out the country’s wealth gap — is likely to reverse decades of social progress and spell disaster for minority groups that fail to conform.
In this new society-wide identity crisis, effeminate men are now in the eye of Xi’s gathering storm.
That intolerance has already started. In July, Tencent Holdings Ltd. deleted dozens of LGBTQ accounts run by university students from its WeChat social media platform. Comments in favor of the shutdowns were allowed to be posted without hindrance, a sign that Beijing is willing to allow homophobic discourse to continue. The company didn’t respond to emails from Bloomberg Opinion on the issue. And this past week, authorities postponed the Hong Kong Gay Games citing the pandemic, with pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho calling the event “disgraceful” and “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that could pose a threat to national security.
While the government has shown a certain amount of tolerance toward the gay community, including allowing commercial enterprises that target the rainbow economy to flourish, it’s also been willing to censor content when doing so suits its needs — cutting most of the homosexual references from Oscar-winning film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ for example. That gay erasure won’t stop at social media accounts and Hollywood movies. Beijing is determined to increase its birth rate, pushing families to have three kids in a sharp turnaround from its infamous one-child policy. Surrogacy and adoption do happen in same-sex relationships, yet gay and lesbian couples don’t fit into the government’s vision for big happy families. To be clear, last year’s update to the Civil Code doesn’t prohibit gay parenting, and simply states that “adoption shall follow the principle that is most beneficial to the adoptee.”
The LGBTQ community isn’t alone. China’s feminist movement has also been hit with the twin blows of social-media censorship and tolerance of vitriol directed at it. And the nation’s MeToo movement suffered severe setbacks over the past month when prosecutors dropped charges against an Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. employee accused of rape, releasing him after serving the maximum 15 days for a lesser charge of indecency. Then on Sept. 15 a former intern at China’s national television broadcaster lost a civil court case in which she alleged a host at the station sexually harassed her.
It’s important to note that a feminized man isn’t necessarily gay — this is a stereotype that Western and Eastern societies have made great progress in eliminating. Yet recent moves to cut LGBTQ discourse in China and promote three-child families don’t augur well for sexual or gender identity minorities. It’s only a small step for Beijing to endorse, or at least allow, homophobic discrimination to occur as the nation reorients itself.
In China, effeminate men are most most visible in boy bands and drama shows that are widely popular and feature slender figures with impeccable make-up. Taken more broadly, the category of “sissy men” might include those who spend hours playing online games or buried in books. Their sexual preference has little correlation to their social and physical personas, yet it’s evident that a connection between these two concepts is being manufactured as China’s leaders seek to reorient the nation’s own identity.
In her 2015 book “Tongzhi Living,” author and scholar Zheng Tiantian writes that a crisis of manhood is linked to a crisis of the nation-state. And in fact, that’s exactly the thesis China’s education ministry was referencing when it outlined strategies to overcome this perceived problem back in December. According to the Global Times, the ministry was responding to a proposal from businessman and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference member Si Zefu that sought to “prevent the feminization of male adolescents.”
“Many Chinese teenage boys nowadays have the characteristics of weakness, low self-esteem and timidity, and they tend to follow the pretty-boy superstars,” Si, who’s chairman of Harbin Electric Corp. was quoted as saying. He noted the problem could harm the very existence and development of the nation. The implication being that men should be fit, strong and macho or else China itself may become weaker.
That means kids, especially boys, need to get off their chairs and into the gym. It also doesn’t augur well for those who prefer to spend their time playing video games, streaming movies or just studying.
“One of the anxieties in the discourse, popular and official, is that too much sitting and studying are conducive to producing feminized men,” Zheng told me recently. “Cutting online gaming and after-school tuition reflect this anxiety.”
The balance between intellectual and physical pursuits in Chinese culture was outlined by Chinese-Australian scholar Kam Louie, who uses the traditional concepts of wen (cultural attainment) and wu (martial valor) as a framework for explaining attitudes toward masculinity, whereby he argues that wen and wu are both important components of the “ideal man.”
A key reason why Beijing is intolerant of these movements is that they’re driven by civil groups that operate outside of the government’s control. An oft-cited explanation for their curtailment is that they’re supposedly agents of foreign influence, one of the most severe criticisms that can be inflicted in Xi’s China, and reminiscent of the first Cultural Revolution waged under Mao where capitalists and opponents of all stripes were weeded out.
Perhaps more concerning, though less-clearly enunciated, is the fact that LGBTQ groups, feminists, and even online gamers are freer thinkers. They’re misfits in a society where the image of a model citizen is becoming more tightly defined. While we’re not likely to see gamers pulled from their PCs and students ripped from classrooms, it’s clear that to conform means less time attaining wen (cultural attainment) and more emphasis on developing wu (martial valor.) Expect to see more state-media images of kids outside marching in unison and scaling obstacle courses, and less of the dutiful nerd.
The space for minorities of any type is quickly closing. In the new era there’s nothing more rebellious than being an effeminate single, gay, childless, intellectual gamer. And China won’t have it.
Tongzhi is a Mandarin term that initially meant "comrade," in the revolutionary sense. It's since taken on multiple meanings, with its modern usage often being "homosexual" or sexual minorities more broadly.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.
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