In an effort to create a “harmonious” environment, China’s popular social media site Sina Weibo last week announced plans to delete content related to gay themes. The move sparked so much public backlash that Sina Weibo reversed its decision Monday, according to a statement posted online.
Sina Weibo is a publicly traded company that depends in large measure on advertising and marketing for revenue.
The original notice, posted on Weibo’s official administrator account Friday, has been shared more than 160,000 times, as of early Monday. The post stated that the site would be launching a three-month cleanup targeting “illegal” content, including images, cartoons and videos associated with homosexuality, pornography and violence.
Weibo further justified its actions by saying the aim was to comply with stricter cybersecurity laws put into place last year by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Under the new laws, companies like Weibo could be punished or investigated by the government for promoting content deemed “unsafe or offensive,” according to the New York Times.
At the time of Friday’s announcement, the site had already removed more than 56,000 pieces of content, closed 108 accounts and taken down 62 topics, the online statement said.
Users and activists were outraged.
“They targeted the entire LGBT community in that notice,” Xiaogang Wei, a leading LGBT rights advocate in China, told CNN. “We must pressure these companies and show them it’s not easy to discriminate against an entire community — no matter who orders them to do it.”
Shortly after the Friday announcement went up, the site was flooded with posts decrying the censorship and expressing support for the LGBT community. Many users included hashtags such as #Iamgay or #Iamgaynotapervert in their posts.
“I am gay and I’m proud, even if I get taken down there are tens of millions like me!” said one poster, according to Reuters.
In a post that has since been removed by the site, another user defiantly wrote, “Can’t stop the rising rainbow” and included a rainbow emoji.
By around noon on Saturday, the hashtag #Iamgay had been used by roughly 170,000 people before being reportedly banned, according to Agence France-Presse. The same hashtag was also viewed nearly 300 million times, Reuters reported.
The site attempted to crack down on the protest by deleting posts and censoring words such as “gay.” The Chinese characters meaning gay occupies the second spot on a current list of Weibo’s Top 10 blocked terms, according to freeweibo.com, a website that tracks censorship.
Some sought refuge on Twitter, where they expressed their displeasure.
One user wrote “We comment on the Internet, everywhere, against the announcement. And few minutes later, they delete them, our articles, our statement, disappear in few minutes. What can we do?”
Although China officially decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and the Chinese Psychiatric Society removed “homosexuality” from its Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders in 2001, the country remains intolerant toward same-sex relationships.
Last year, The Washington Post reported that people in China who are LGBT are still being subjected to “treatments,” such as forced confinement, medication and electric shock therapy to “convert” them. These procedures occurred in some public, government-run hospitals and in private clinics, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
The site’s censorship of gay content further stigmatized gay people in China and made it harder for people to come out, Chen Du, a gay activist in Guangzhou, told the New York Times.
“People who are ready to come out are going to be pushed back to where they used to be, faced with pressure and helplessness,” he said.
However, Weibo’s swift reversal after facing public outcry may signal changing times.
In an interview with CNN, Hua Zile, founder of a Weibo page focused on gay rights that was told it would be shut down, said he felt “totally surprised and touched” by the new announcement.
“Seven years ago, not that many people were willing to make their voices heard this way,” he said. “It’s amazing to see this happen now, with everyone — straight or gay, celebrities or ordinary people — using the hashtag and joining in.”
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