Censorship of lesbian content on China’s popular microblog Sina Weibo has sparked fears of a deepening crackdown targeting gay users, one year after a public outcry pushed the platform to backtrack on a similar attempt to remove such content.
Weibo users on Friday discovered they were unable to access a popular “les” (short for lesbian) online discussion group. The discovery set off a flurry of angry posts, pushing the term “les” into Weibo’s top search terms, as users proclaimed “We are les” in a show of support for those protesting against the censorship.
A campaign launched by Weibo in April last year attempted to remove homosexual content, lumping it in with violence and pornography, but the company reversed its decision after an outpouring of anger, threats of legal action and a flood of personal letters to the company from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“Lots of people have connected last year’s ban of gay topics with this year’s ban of ‘les’ and believe it is a clear-out targeted at the LGBT community,” a spokesperson for non-profit advocacy group Beijing LGBT Centre told the Financial Times.
Number of members of the “les” group on Weibo before it was closed
In the past year, censors have closed platforms that discussed gender and identity, such as the popular Feminist Voices, cut four minutes of content from Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and pixelated or taken down multiple videos with gay content, including the Eurovision Song Contest.
“China’s censorship of LGBT content will be ever more strict this year compared to last year,” the spokesperson predicted, declining to be named.
Weibo’s “super topic” function allows groups of users to make topic-specific digital communities to share and discuss news. For many LGBT Chinese, especially those who live in small, socially conservative places, these online groups can play an important role helping people understand and accept gender identities, advocates say.
Searches on Weibo for the “les” group, which had about 140,000 members and 46 million total views, turned up blank on Monday, and the top LGBT content result was a newly created “lesbians” group with only 13,000 members.
Weibo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company told media platform NGOCN that the group “temporarily did not meet requirements”, due to a “large volume of information that broke regulations”.
Another group for discussing lesbian content, called “les sky”, on the popular culture website Duoban also appeared to become unsearchable briefly over the weekend, raising fears that the Weibo’s decision was part of a wider campaign.
China’s LGBT communities have in recent years begun to make strides pushing back against decades of social conservatism and Communist puritanism over sex, and most major Chinese cities now have thriving gay scenes.
But the group has repeatedly found itself falling foul of censors as the government ramps up control over online content deemed sensitive or “vulgar”.
In recent years, thousands of websites, blogs and individual accounts have been shut, while internet platforms have hired legions of censors.