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Tuesday 09 November 2010


China: "Neither Promote or Persecute?"

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 27th April 2010

In the emergent multipolar world of the twenty first century, China looks set to become a pre-eminent rising global power. What are the implications for its LGBT communities?
 
After the Chinese Psychiatric Association deleted male homosexuality from its list of 'pathologies,' eastern Chinese coastal cities developed gay pubs and saunas of their own. In addition, Beijing is pragmatic when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention and recognises the need for safe sex and needle exchanges to prevent the spread of that epidemic within its borders. However, while western style tongzhi (Cantonese: comrade) social identities and commercial venues have blossomed, there has been no further movement on distinct gay social and political objectives- like antidiscrimination laws, relationship equality and same-sex parenting -similar to those in western societies.
 
Despite its pursuit of a market economy, Beijing is wary of independent social and political movements. One could ask why the Communist Party doesn't form its own lesbian and gay support group, though, if it wants to retain the support of its tongzhi citizens. Part of the problem may lie with China's ethnic homogeneity. In many western societies, LGBT communities modelled early social movements on ethnic pride and assertiveness, whether African-American civil rights or Maori renaissance politics in our own context. However, China doesn't have that history. While Xinjiang is its only Muslim majority province, that renders it a conservative outpost and chilly to LGBT individuals and community formation. Many former Xinjiang tongzhi travel to the more liberal eastern coastal cities.
 
(As for Tibet, I'd note that when an earlier article on LGBT China appeared on one Singaporean gay website, the blogger explained to his fellow East and South East Asian respondents that Tibetan independence and solidarity politics received particular attention amongst western nations. This suggests that it doesn't do so within the Chinese diaspora, and is seen as tangential. After all, Beijing has governed Tibet as a constituent province for the last sixty two years. Insofar as the Falun Dafa religious movement is concerned, Beijing appears to regard it as a dangerous anti-regime cult- and moreover, its leadership has apparently engaged in antigay outbursts).
 
Since 1997, then, Beijing has pursued a policy that can be best described as 'neither promotion or persecution.' It lets tongzhi social networks exist, as well as 'money boy' sex work, but also raids pubs to check whether hard drugs are circulating (which can be explained by the proximity of the "Golden Triangle" of heroin production in neighbouring South East Asia). Indeed, this happened during the recent Beijing Olympics. Cruising sites are patrolled by police. Robert Dessaix, an HIV+ Australian essayist, was denied entry to China to attend a cultural conference. The Mr Gay China pageant was called off at short notice.
 
However, Chinese diaspora antigay publications are not allowed into Beijing, either. While there is a "Focus on the Chinese Family" satellite of the notorious US Christian Right multinational Focus on the Family, its activities are largely confined to Chinese diaspora communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Singapore, as opposed to the mainland. I wouldn't be surprised if Beijing jammed antigay broadcasts from that quarter, either.
 
How do we deal with this? We need to demonstrate to Beijing that our intentions are friendly, given that unlike the United States, China is not actively involved in disseminating antigay propaganda. We also need to convince its authorities that LGBT identity politics is unconnected to what the Communist Party might regard as anti-regime elements, which may be easier to accomplish. Instead, tongzhi politics is incremental, modest and reformist.
 
 If we succeed in that, then the lives of our Chinese counterparts may become easier and less intensively scrutinised.

Craig Young - 27th April 2010

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