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Thursday 09 October 2008

Ahead of the Olympics, are China's gays in trouble?

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 6th August 2008

In March 2008, The UK Gay Times reported that as the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games draw closer, there have been several raids on Beijing and Shanghaigay venues and cruising grounds, as well as arrest of independent HIV prevention activists.

While China decriminalised male homosexuality in 1997, police asked for addresses ofindependent LGBT activists in February 2008, while there have been reported raids on Beijing's Oasis gay sauna, the Destination club, and cruising grounds in Dongden Park and Haidan District, and Shanghai clubs and saunas have also been raided. Police are reported to be curtailing sex work as Beijing prepares for the Olympics, and male sex workers seem to be the focus of these inquiries.

Moreover, Hu Jia, an independent HIV prevention campaigner, was jailed for three years in April 2008 after criticising China's state HIV prevention programmes as 'inadequate.'

In Gay Times' latest issue, Sally Howard writes her own account of what happened in Beijing and Shanghai, which provides an alternative account of what happened earlier this year:

Reports cited police swoops on two Beijing bathhouses and raids of major gay nightclubs in Beijing and Shanghai (March 9th), interrogations in gay ‘cruisey park' Dong Dan in the east of Beijing (March 17th), police bids to snare male sex workers by posting fake responses to adverts on Beijing Tongzhi LGBT website, and ID raids on the homes of two Beijing HIV activists and a gay website editor (March 21st).

However, according to Howard, what might have actually happened, and for whatever reason, may be quite different. Edmund C, one of the Beijing Destination venue managers, argues that the raid happened because officials were concerned about the impact of large crowds and fire safety, which is a legitimate concern quite apart from allegations of homophobic harassment, primarily from western-based gay media and Chinese dissident sources.

Howard notes that despite reported harassment, the Beijing scene is thriving, and has its own 'muscle queens' and 'lady boy' drag queens- as well as 'money boy' male sex workers who do it for the yuen. Beijing scene participants acknowledge the repression of the rural peasant Maoist conservative past, but note that urbanisation and access to higher education has provided younger Chinese gay men to flock to the prosperous East Chinese urban sprawl, and participate in that nation's economic transformation.

However, as Howard also notes, traditionally, Chinese history and society have been more inclusive of same-sex relationships than the Christian West:

By many measures, gay culture in China has a prouder, and more progressive, lineage than its Western counterpart. Same-sex relationships have been documented in China since the Zhou period (1100-256 BC). In official records of the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220), for example, 10 emperors are listed with the names of their male lovers. Through successive dynasties homosexual expression was accepted, so long as it was an addendum to the Confucian duty to marry and perpetuate the family name. The only blister on this smooth timeline was 1740's official decree outlawing homosexual activities. However, as the decree was largely the result of the influence of Western Christian missionaries, it was roundly ignored by a Chinese populace who didn't subscribe to their interlopers' trendy view of ‘shamefulness'.

And what about the scenes in various Chinese cites? Here, Howard draws attention toa legitimate reasonfor police attention to venues - drugs.

It is important to recall that South East Asia is a hub of the P/crystal meth trade, and that no-one could blame the Chinese authorities for wanting to spare their gay (and other) citizens from the ravages that deadly drug has wrought in the United States- to say nothing of the public health costs and HIV/AIDS prevention aspects of such interdiction:

Do the scenes differ between Chinese cities? "Definitely," says LB. "In Shenzhen [the modern city in the south of China that's become a playground to Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen] the scene is very developed; there's a large gay area. Shanghai is more metro and much more image-orientated. The guys there look good, but the scene is very much about drugs, so they have more of a problem with the police [seminal Shanghai gay club The Dip was closed down last year after a drugs raid]." And Beijing? "In some ways it's more conservative," says LB, "but it's the best. It has the style nights on Thursdays at LAN club – very glitzy, very attitude. And, you know, it has Destination," LB waves his hands around in a sweeping arc to illustrate the point.

Howard raises an excellent point. Should we believe everything we read in the western media, or are we unintentional victims of 'spun' geopolitical biases from the United States? It is certainly the case that China's continued occupation of Tibet and repression of its people are reprehensible, as was its support for Pol Pot in Cambodia in the seventies and eighties, and its assistance to the brutal Islamist regime in Sudan, and the plight of its Christian African inhabitants in Darfur.

However, so for that matter is the US-led Iraqi occupation and its warmongering ruminations directed against Iran, whatever one might think of Tehran's Shia Islamic Republic and its maltreatment of Iranian lesbians and gay men, and its assistance to anti-occupation rebels, with similar human rights abuses to their credit.

However much one might condemn both Beijing and Washington for what happens abroad, not everything those respective superpowers do is motivated by desire for geopolitical advantage. The Taliban were actively engaged in homophobic violence, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan. In the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic led a barbaric racist and nationalist regime in Belgrade until NATO intervened against its ravages in Bosnia and Kosovo.

As for China, not all dissidents have clean hands. What about Falun Dafa (Falun Gong), which independent investigators have concluded is an authoritarian cult that also has a conservative Buddhist homophobic bias? Moreover, it should also be remembered that while it trails Europe and South America in LGBT rights terms, China did finally decriminalisemalehomosexuality (1997) six years before the United States (2003). India, the other rising power, still has not done so.


'Beijing begins clean up': Gay Times 356 (May 2008): 62:

Sally Howard: "Torch Song Beijing" Gay Times 359 (August 2008):

Craig Young - 6th August 2008