By Nectar Gan and Yong Xiong, CNN
WeChat deleted more than a dozen LGBT accounts run by college students, sparking fears that China’s safe spaces sexual and gender minorities will decline further.
On social networks Tuesday, LGBT rights activists protested the brutal closure of these accounts by the Tencent-owned company. The deleted accounts were managed by students from universities in China, including prestigious institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Fudan University in Shanghai.
While CNN Business was unable to access these deleted accounts, several subscribers posted screenshot of the notice that greeted them when they landed on the empty pages of the accounts.
“After receiving relevant complaints, all content was blocked and the account was taken out of service,” the notice said, citing a violation of government regulations on managing public accounts online.
Wechat did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNN Business.
China decriminalized homosexuality by 1997 and removed it from its official list of mental disorders in 2001. But same-sex marriage is still illegal in the country, and people who identify as LGBT continue to suffer discrimination in the personal and professional spheres. Activists fear that the Communist Party will further crack down on safe spaces for sexual minorities in the country.
Some of the suppressed LGBT groups were registered as student clubs at their universities, while others operated informally. Most of them have been around for years, providing students with a sense of community and much needed support, with posts ranging from recommendations for LGBT-themed books and movies to counseling resources.
Cathy, director of one of the deleted LGBT groups from a Beijing university, said the six-year-old’s account had around 18,000 subscribers.
The 25-year-old – who has asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals from authorities – has seen discussions about sexuality become more reserved at her university in recent years. In the past, her group could openly advocate for LGBT rights on campus and organize small seminars for sexual minorities to share their stories. Now their offline activities are limited to private gatherings, like sharing a meal or watching a movie together, she said.
“In recent years, our focus has just been to survive, to continue to be able to serve and warm LGBT students. Basically, we don’t engage in radical advocacy anymore, ”added Cathy.
Last August, Shanghai Pride, the oldest and only annual celebration of sexual minorities in China, abruptly announced its closure after facing increasing pressure from local authorities.
Last month, soccer star Li Ying officially released as a lesbian in an article on Weibo, becoming the first high-performance Chinese athlete to do so. Li, who plays for the national football team, then deleted the post, which garnered widespread support but also a wave of homophobic attacks.
The blocking of WeChat accounts has sparked a scandal on Chinese social networks.
“The times are regressing. China was not like this 10 years ago. Little by little, we are losing all our freedoms, ”said one comment on Weibo.
But the move has been hailed by nationalists online, some of whom have claimed, without evidence, that these LGBT groups have been infiltrated by “foreign forces.”
“I support the blocking of accounts … why should we keep these public accounts run by anti-Chinese forces in our higher education institutions?” Are we waiting for them to brainwash college students who haven’t yet formed their values? Said a comment on Weibo.
Cathy, from the Beijing LGBT group, called the claim “completely ridiculous.”
“Sexual minority groups have been around for a long time in China, not because of any incitement from so-called foreign forces,” she said. “They don’t understand (the LGBT community) at all and have no intention of understanding (us).”
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