Despite having over 70 countries around the globe yet to legalize homosexuality (Mendos, 2019), it is undeniable that voices fighting for LGBT rights has been increasingly louder with activists holding annual pride parades in different countries (ILGTA, 2019), as well as a rising demand for legal protection of its community through the help of international organizations. (Clarke, 2018) Nevertheless, China being one of the lower ranked countries in terms of Human Freedom Index (Vásquez, I., & Porcnik, T., 2018, p.400), alongside scholar labelling China as a “great threat to freedom” (McMahon F., 2018, p.7), has raised a growing awareness around the world on its suppressive measures in limiting the human rights. This essay aims to examine the human rights condition of the Chinese LGBT community throughout the years, by comparing between the position within the society of “Ancient China and Imperial China” and “Modern China”, in two levels: the government policy and societal phenomenon.
Being the ruling power of the state, the Central Government has often been perceived as the one who construct social norms and implement policies to establish “rule and order” within the country. Ranging from emperors throughout dynasties in Ancient and Imperial China, to presidents in contemporary China, leaders of different eras were frequently found exerting their influence while shaping the societal structure and civilians’ attitude towards divergent matters (Linehan, 2018). Consequently, conditions and positions of Chinese LGBT community in the society vary among different time periods of China, due to governors’ disparate perspectives on homosexuality that led to different measures implemented by the Central Government at the time. Thus, it has been chosen to use “the two levels” mentioned above as a general indicator to whether LGBT rights has been protected.
Rulers in Ancient China to Imperial China and leaders in modern China have comparatively divergent views and attitudes upon homosexuality. During the period of Ancient and Imperial China, governments throughout dynasties were relatively permissive towards homosexual relationships. Initially, homosexuality has not been a frequent target to regulation in the legal system. In point of fact, there has been a long history regarding homosexual affairs before Qing Dynasty. Apparent evidence in the forms of literature and age-old stories have shown tangible sign of homosexuality, particularly between emperors and their servants, who were described as “beautiful boys derived with the Yellow Emperor.” (Xiaomingxiong, 1984) Such famous tales include “the Leftover Peach” in Zhou Dynasty where a favored boy, Mizi Xia, shared the same peach with the Duke Ling of Wei (Han, 1964), and “Passion of the Cut Sleeve” in Han Dynasty (1996), which depicted the intimate relationship between Dong Xian and the Emperor Ai of Han. Another noticeable trace of homosexual matter is the presence of homosexual theme in poetry, which made references to the stories of homosexual affairs among emperors and their male companions (Hinsch, 1992), and even a forthright love confession to one’s beloved. For instance, Emperor Jianwen of the Ming has expressed his affection and praise upon his homosexual lover, particularly one’s appearance, describing him as a “charming boy” who “looks so handsome” and his beauty “surpassing Dong Xian and Mizi Xia” (Birrell, 1986.) It was not until the Qing Dynasty that consensual homosexual intercourse between adults was legally outlawed with the imposed punishment of “a month in cangue and 100 heavy blows” with bamboo (Hinsch, 1992, p.144). Despite the eventual outlawry in the Qing, it could be observed that not only did the government permit homosexual activities within the country before Qing Dynasty, emperors themselves have also partook in such act. Moreover, homosexual-related materials were not hindered from publication.
On the contrary, government in the contemporary China has not been so tolerant towards homosexuality. During the Cultural Revolution, homosexual relationships were abnormalized and gay men were being “terribly persecuted” by imprisonment and public humiliation (Cui, et al., 2016) Before 1997, homosexual behavior was deemed as an illegal act in the name of “hooliganism”, which the government regarded it as “disrupting social disorder.” (1982), and a type of “mental illness” that should be “cured.”(Li, 2016) Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997 and no longer classified as a “psychological disorder” in 2001 (Chen, 2002), policies and actions from the government of modern China are perceived as infringing LGBT community’s rights in numerous ways. Consistent clampdown through all means but direct condemn on homosexual act has been a major way to suppress homosexuality as observed in recent years, including massive online and broadcast censorship, organizations shutdown, interference in legal proceedings and controlled media outlet. In March 2016, a television drama series that featured gay relationships, Addicted, has been kept from streaming (Peterson, 2016). Prevalent Chinese social platform “Sina Weibo” has started to filter and delete user content related to LGBT culture in 2018, flagging them as inappropriate (Hernández & Mou, 2018). In January 2019, two LGBT-related organizations, Guangzhou University Rainbow Group and Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre, were labelled as “illegal organizations” by the government and were forced to shut down (OutRight Action International, 2019). In 2016, a student took her complaint about the way Chinese textbooks regarded homosexuality as a “disease” to the court. Nonetheless, not only did the case went to no avail, but it also failed to gain attention and raise awareness due to a media prohibition in reporting such matter, which was specifically ordered by the government (Kitchener, 2016). Despite the fact that consensual homosexual intercourse was no longer defined as “illegal”, it is conspicuous that the government has been trying to clamp down the influence of the LGBT community by limiting their freedom. Such freedom is inclusive of “freedom of opinion, expression and information”, “freedom of association”, “freedom of thought” and “right to fair trial”, which are components of “human rights standards” according to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2019).
Comparing the administration approach of the Ancient and Imperial China to the modern China, it is obvious that the old government held a more tolerant and approving stance towards homosexuality in both the act itself and its cultural influence, whereas the current government is more intolerant towards such community, particularly one’s act of “pursuing rights”, in which the government considers as a threat to “social stability.” According to Chinese researcher Lau, “the government sees communities capable of mobilizing a large crowd in a short period of time as potential threats to social stability.” (Agence France-Presse, 2019) Whatever activities that might spread ideologies that are opposed to the socialist orientation of China, such as public demonstrations about civil rights, would be viewed as “disrupting social harmony” (OutRight Action International, 2019). In the context of this essay, it is not surprising that the modern China would sacrifice “human rights” of the LGBT group for the sake of the internal stability with inhibitive practices.
Being the dominating power of a country, guidelines set by the government would inevitably affect the society being ruled. Such disparate attitudes between the government from the past and the modern times, have undoubtedly also shaped distinct social attitudes of their own. During the period of Ancient and Imperial China, society deemed homosexual partners as no deviants other than heterosexual couples, as long as one has fulfilled his filial piety by marrying a woman and bearing offspring. “Heterosexual marriage” had long been an indispensable element in a Chinese society, as it “provided heirs to continue the ancestral rites.” (Browning, Green, & Witte, 2006) It is worth noting that such marriage was considerably served as a tool to construct societal structure by the means of “reunion of two clans” (Chun, 2013, p.821), which could only be legitimized through “dictating from parents and facilitation from the go-between” (fumu zhi ming, meishuo zhi yan 父母之命, 媒妁之言) (Chun, 2013, p.820) Thus, it is not uncommon that little amatory sentiment could be found among a married couple under such circumstances. Homosexuality was therefore able to blossom in a rather unbounded space under the premise of “accomplished filial piety”, giving the men of China freedom to seek romantic and sexual bond with a same-sex companion. Notably, homosexual love prevailed exceptionally in Ming Dynasty, when the idea of free sexual expression and erotic poetry flourished under the Great Ming, owing to the prevalent ideology of individualism advocated by leading intellectual figures such as Li Zhi. (Hinsch, 1992, p.140) It “sums up the pervasive spirit of the age” (Hinsch, 1992, p.140), which allowed men of the Ming to pursue their desired intimacy according to one’s sexual preferences. Indeed, records from the older China have documented “many men who had experienced both heterosexuality and homosexuality during their lives.” (Hinsch, 1992, p. 11) Social status and age had been put on emphasis correlated to the existence of homosexual relationships, where higher-class and older men were commonly found to have formed romantic and sexual bond with a younger boy (Hinsch, 1992, p.9-12), whom focus little on their partner’s gender. As a result, homosexuality had become a ubiquitous phenomenon in the “male-dominated” (Sun, 2009) Chinese society, which could be observed as a widely accepted orientation within the dynastic Chinese society. The “gay community”, we refer to as people in same-sex relationships nowadays, was generally not socially oppressed in terms of public opinion, illustrated by the existing documentations and literature written in this era. Society had not advocated “LGBT rights”, since men in dynastic China were already “free” in that sense. It should be noted that lesbian relationships were not prominent in the aspect of “LGBT culture” due to a lower social status of Chinese women in the ancient times (Sun, 2009).
Similar to the governance difference between the old and the new times, hostile views upon homosexual individuals have emerged in the Chinese society since the 19th century, which created an unfavorable environment for the LGBT community to live in. Social animosity initiated in the Qing Dynasty, where the first legitimate outlawry addressing specifically on homosexuality took place (Hinsch, 1992, p.144). Tighter control implemented by the Qing rulers, such as dedicated laws aiming at homosexual sexual practices, has ultimately brought much influence into the society, attributed to a rising impact of westernization and the Manchu traditional values which revealed disapproval of such act (Hinsch, 1992, p.141-144). Being labelled with degrading names such as “immoral wickedness” (Hinsch, 1992, p.142), homosexuality was no longer considered as a tolerable social conduct since then. According to Xie and Peng, “78.53% of the respondents [in the Chinese General Social Survey] believed that ‘same-sex sexual behavior is always wrong. (2017)’” Under a suppressive political system where numerous sources of LGBT community support have been tremendously cut, such as organizations shutdown and massive wipeout of online materials, as well as the constant act of “vilifying” homosexuality by defining it as “vulgar and immoral.” (Peterson, 2016), the mass has been gradually induced with a negative association with homosexuality, without holding the opportunity to view homosexuality fairly under a civil context due to a lack of exposure to a holistic view on homosexuality. Scholar Xie and Peng suggest that a “favourable foundation” for “tolerant social attitudes towards homosexuality” could be created by “increasing openness of homosexual-related discussion in public spaces” as well as greater “exposure to internet information and liberal inclination.” (2017) With a shrinking space for such discussions given by the strict rule of President Xi, it is conceivable that the public would view homosexuality merely based on the information and ideology prompted by the government which eventually shaped the negative attitude of the society.
On the other hand, amidst a strained atmosphere with an underlying threat of being forcefully silenced, existing organizations have become more cautious on their interactions with the outside world in order to avoid punitive measures from the government, while still being able to promote LGBT rights albeit to a limited extent. According to scholar Hildebrandt, 53% of the survey respondents from LGBT-related organizations and support groups reported “receiving money from the Chinese government” that was originally from “foreign sources but is filtered by government agencies in Beijing and at local levels.” (2012) These organizations are therefore compelled to abide by the ‘the framework of existing national laws” (Hildebrandt, 2012) and dare not to cross the line given by the state, as one might be deprived of the resources they have. The same hypothesis applies to the mass. Chinese people tend to adhere to a passive way of living, often accompanied by a mild rejection towards activism owing to the omnipresent fear of being “punished” if one opposes to the authority’s will. Student activist Xia Xu indicated that one would be regarded as “troublemaker” whom are “too aggressive” if they pursue their desired rights in a more active way, such as “filing a lawsuit.” (Kitchener, 2016) Such mentality has contributed to the low social awareness and reduced incentive in pursuing civil rights, which makes only 20% of the Chinese citizens actually voting for the LGBT rights (Li, 2016), despite a moderately high proportion of people (59.4%) “strongly agree” to the proposal of “protection of minorities’ rights” when being anonymously surveyed. (Wu, 2016, p.23) On the other hand, not only do the society have been shaped to an unfavourable environment for the LGBT community to voice out their concerns, homosexual individuals might encounter hindrances in disclosing one’s sexual orientation under tremendous pressure, particularly from one’s family. While “filial piety” duties remain a core value in the modern Chinese society, men were no longer allowed to partake in any forms of homosexuality just as men in the bygone China, since homosexuality has been abnormalized. In 2013, a 30-year-old man agreed to a sexual-orientation-conversion therapy under parental pressure, which included “hypnosis, electrolysis therapy and emotional diversion therapy.” (Powell, 2014). In 2016, a man was held in a Henan hospital for 19 days for a “conversion therapy” on his parents’ demand (Wu, 2019). Such horrendous news have manifested the asphyxiating family pressure experienced by the Chinese LGBT community. According to the survey of Peking University’s sociology department in 2016, fewer that 15% of homosexuals have come out to their families and more than half of those who have come out had experienced discrimination. (Parker, 2017) It has come to my observation that homosexual individuals have lost the freedom to live according to their own will, on account of the fear of societal marginalization.
Comparing the social attitude of China in the past to the contemporary China, while both put homosexuality on the basis of “filial piety”, it is clear that homosexuality was regarded in a higher position in the society of the Ancient and Imperial China than the society of modern China. LGBT community in the 20th to the 21st century was stigmatized by a population that extensively holds conservative views upon LGBT matters, thus evoking a sense of angst in the LGBT community, since one could possibly be alienated by their acquaintances. With such a fear, these people would be deterred to disclose one’s sexual orientation, which put immense burden on their shoulders as one shall conceal their sexual preferences in order to “fit in the social norm” that could supposedly pave the path of a relatively “easier” social life. In a UNDP survey about the Chinese LGBT community, “only less than one in five respondents are open to admitting their identities when they receive healthcare services, while only less than 10% choose to do so in other social services environments” (Wu, 2016, p.20), conceivably because of the doubt of not being able to benefit from these services once revealed their own sexual orientation. In light of “human rights standards” given by the UNDP, civil rights consisting “right to the highest attainable standard of health”, “right to social security”, “freedom from degrading treatment or punishment” and “right to enjoy cultural life” (2019), have been evidently infringed in China as demonstrated in the examples above.
After an analysis about the condition of the local LGBT community in China on both governmental and societal levels, it could be argued that civil rights of such group have experienced a deterioration throughout the years. Data and documentation of coercive behaviour, ranging from restrictive government policy to deprecating social attitudes, have undoubtedly undermined LGBT rights to a certain degree. Although having a comparatively lower occurrence of more severe forms of violence such as physical assault and homicide (Wu, 2016, p.28), the issue could possibly go as acute as jeopardizing the surface existence of the LGBT persons if further execute repressive measures. It is false to describe China as an absolute totalitarian state in which the LGBT community has no rights and no stake in society, yet it is not false to describe it as a country close to being one. It is also untrue to say there are little to no Chinese people who approve of the LGBT culture. However, providing the antagonistic regulations continue to pose a threatening constraint on the LGBT community in China, one would not be able to live in total ease and freedom but only as a caged bird.