The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gay Games in Hong Kong face attacks as China’s proxies target LGBT groups

Participants hold a rainbow flag as they take part in a Pride parade in Hong Kong on Nov. 17, 2018. (Yan Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)
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HONG KONG — When Hong Kong was announced in 2017 as host of the 11th Gay Games next year, the first time the event would be held in Asia, it was a nod to the city's status as a cosmopolitan place and a relative bright spot in the region for progressive causes.

Now, attacks on the Gay Games from local lawmakers aligned with Beijing are revealing bigotry in the financial hub, where space for promoting ideas such as equality and diversity has shrunk under China’s tightening control. Amid a crackdown enabled by a national security law introduced last year, the Hong Kong activists who would typically push back against such attacks are either behind bars or in exile.

Leading the crusade is Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who has called the Gay Games “disgraceful” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that could violate the security law. Another lawmaker, Priscilla Leung, said activists could use the sports and cultural event to promote political causes. Peter Shiu, a member of a center-right party, said Hong Kong can “tolerate” but not promote homosexuality.

Hong Kong’s government, which answers to Beijing, has said it does not condone the attacks. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the comments from Ho and others “will unnecessarily divide society” and pledged that her administration would continue to rent out venues to the organizers.

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Still, the controversy shows the dual pressures facing Hong Kong officials in maintaining the city’s global standing while effecting a broad societal re-engineering demanded by Beijing, including closing avenues of expression for civil society groups.

Last week, Hong Kong authorities said they could retroactively ban films they consider a threat to their concept of national security. A leading independent bookstore said over the weekend that it was shutting down because of the political climate. Taiwan, the only place in Asia to have legalized same-sex marriage, has pulled out of the Gay Games over fears that authorities could deem its athletes to be violating the security law if they wave the Taiwanese flag in Hong Kong.

Until last year, when the pro-democracy camp still existed in Hong Kong’s legislature, over half of lawmakers voiced support for LGBT issues, said Yeo Wai-wai, a member of the nonprofit group Rainbow Action. Now, with the opposition virtually eliminated, Yeo said the space for LGBT advocacy has “shrunk to almost none left” and it would be “extremely difficult” to enact greater same-sex rights.

Noting the targeting of LGBT activists, Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific regional director, said “the right to freedom of expression is indispensable when it comes to advocating equality.”

Hong Kong won the right to host the 2022 Gay Games over Washington, D.C., and Guadalajara, Mexico. Organizers estimated a profit of $128 million, with about 12,000 participants and 75,000 spectators.

Attacks on the event started in June during a legislative session, when Ho said the Games would yield “dirty money.” He upped the ante last week when he cited Article 23 of China’s national security law, which states that the country should “guard against the impact of harmful culture.” Previously, Ho, who did not respond to requests for comment, had called a TV show that featured gay relationships “marijuana coated in sugar.”

Dennis Philipse, founder and co-chair of the Gay Games 2022, said Hong Kong’s legislature is “a place to discuss things — everyone can have their opinions.”

Asked if he worried that the event could be called off, Philipse said he hopes the Games’ message of “unity in diversity” can “bring people together to withstand any political pressures.”

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The episode comes as China’s Communist Party, in a context of rising nationalism and anti-Western sentiment, clamps down on groups it views as too influential, from tech companies to online fan clubs to advocates of sexual minority rights. Mainland authorities have sometimes tarred homosexuality as a negative foreign influence, and the limited space that had opened for LGBT activists in recent years is closing.

“The LGBT movement is a part of a global movement cutting across different countries that connects with people around the world, indicating a foreign element which the mainland government could view as another threat,” said Suen Yiu-tung, a gender studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In July, the Chinese messaging app WeChat blocked accounts of LGBT student clubs and university organizations in China. A month later, Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, banned a male video blogger after receiving complaints about his “feminine” behavior. A leaked document reported by SupChina, a New York-based news outlet that focuses on China,separately revealed that Shanghai University has been collecting names of LGBT students for an unclear purpose.

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Those who study LGBT rights say the situation in Hong Kong is not an exact mirror of the difficulties faced by these groups on the mainland, but that the territory has been passive in pushing for gay rights. In July, Lam said Hong Kong “does not have a consensus” on giving sexual minorities legal status or further rights and called it a “very, very controversial issue.” Advances in LGBT legislation have been won through court decisions, meaning the government is acting “reactively” to reviews by the judiciary, Suen said. (Hong Kong does not allow same-sex marriage, but provides limited recognition of same-sex unions performed elsewhere in matters such as taxation and spousal visas for foreign residents.)

Some who fought for these rights, including former lawmaker Jimmy Sham, are in jail serving time or awaiting trial for alleged crimes related to their pro-democracy activism.

Yet polls show that Sham’s views are more in line with those of Hong Kong’s population. A survey published in January 2020, the latest available gauge of such views, showed opposition to legal rights for LGBT people at a historic low. A local remake of a Japanese show featuring gay relationships, “Ossan’s Love,” airs on a major television channel and has won critical acclaim.

Businesses, too, have been more explicit about support for gay rights, changing logos to rainbow colors during Pride Month. Following Ho’s comment last week, a bus carried an advertisement by the company Mr. Expan that read: “Sexual minorities aren’t a virus; prejudice is.”

Despite the setbacks and the fact that the pro-Beijing camp is the only real voice in the legislature, Yeo said she and others will keep pushing for progress through the courts.

Amnesty’s Mishra, while viewing the Games as an opportunity to promote diversity, said her organization is worried about the difficulty of future LGBT activism and the shrinking space for civil liberties in Hong Kong.

“Current events … only show the fear the national security law creates and its far-reaching impact on civil society in the territory,” she said.

Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong, Alicia Chen and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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