For Mei, logging into the WeChat account for his queer student society was habitual, like eating or sleeping. For six years, he helped run one of China’s most prominent groups. But on July 6, he signed in with trepidation; he’d heard that other societies’ profiles on the social messaging platform had been censored, and were now appearing as “unnamed accounts.” Minutes later, so was his.

Across China, queer college societies, which had been rare spaces to safely push boundaries, were being swiftly erased from the Chinese internet. In July, 14 of the largest and most prominent accounts were banned, cutting connections between thousands of members scattered across the country and casting them adrift. Those hard-earned followings could take years to recover, and there was no way to restore an archive of their activities. No explanation was given for the ban.

Since the early days of the internet, queer Chinese people have gravitated online; first, to connect under the safety of anonymity, and later to organize. For decades, China’s queer community has been faced with a central government that seems to neither support nor actively oppose LGBTQI people; local governments that refuse to register organizations; and state agencies that call to ban queer content and effeminate depictions of males. The internet was, by nature, muddy and borderless, a place where ambiguity worked in the queer community’s favor.

Around him, people reacted with shock or anger, but Mei felt nothing. “I knew this day would come,” he said. He doesn’t think there was any single trigger for the sudden crackdown. Over the past few years, the school administration had applied increasing pressure on Mei’s society; online, nationalists had become increasingly vocal, decrying any non-mainstream behavior as a security threat. 

Instead of LGBTQI, the term used in China is tongzhi, literally meaning “same purpose.” It’s drawn from a saying from Sun Yat-Sen, considered by the party as the forerunner of the revolution: “The revolution is not yet done; all my tongzhi must strive on.” The term refers to other comrades in the struggle towards revolution, and the LGBTQI community has taken it to describe their own struggle for legitimacy.  

The struggle has worsened. Things that were acceptable to speak about online before can now open you up to attack. It’s not just LGBTQI issues, in Mei’s view. Anything rights-related is now a target. 

Feeling something between fatigue and numbness, Mei’s society began using a backup account they set up years before. This moment feels like a low ebb. Mei doesn’t want to conform to the mainstream idea of what a good, acceptable life entails in China, although that’s how he lives now. He said that now he wants to tangping — to stop struggling, and just lie down.

When the country went online in the 1990s, so did many queer people who wanted to find others like them. Gay sex was decriminalized in China in 1997, but by then, there was already a thriving online community.

Leo, then in his teens, grew up in a small city in southern China. He was the first person in his class to have access to a computer and get online. “They were crude,” he said of early queer websites. “No one posted any personal information online.” Leo’s name, and those of others in this piece, have been changed to protect them from reprisals.

He discovered forums like Guangtong, where you could search for queer people living in the same region; there was also BF99 — one of the predecessors of the now-dominant gay dating app Blued — where you could look nationwide.

“Censorship wasn’t as strict,” he said of those early years. “It gave you the false belief that things would get better.”

He remembers that even soft porn was easy to find. Danlan, an online social forum started by Ma Baoli (also known by the alias Geng Le, and who is now CEO of Blued) used plenty of that, mostly erotic novels and pictures, to attract traffic. Soutong hosted classified advertisements where users sought advice, dates, and prostitutes. (It is still active today, though the domain name changes all the time to avoid the censors.) Aibai, where a gay Asian American columnist doled out advice, was backed by Chinese NGOs working on HIV/AIDS prevention and public education, and became an authoritative source of information on LGBTQI issues.

“The revolution is not yet done; all my tongzhi must strive on.”

Around 2010, gay men began to create profiles, journal, and list events on Feizan, a site similar to Facebook. Feizan also hosted stories about men coming out to their families that all had suspiciously happy endings. Leo said that reading these emboldened him to come out to his own family, which ended less well. “They still push me to marry and have kids,” he said.  

On Douban, Leo built a significant personal following. Woven through his gym selfies and other content was an internet language called linyu, which involves playing with deliberate mispronunciations and homophones in Mandarin. Le, for example, a word commonly used to modify tense, becomes re, the word to provoke. A virtual sneer is xixi, which sounds almost the same as the word for sucking. 

The lin in linyu is derived from gay icon and diva Cai Yilin, or Jolin Tsai, with other meanings including being drenched, and a type of STD; the yu means language. Using it, queer people can flirt, be dramatic, and become “sisters.” A lot of it is nonsense, but it creates an emotional bond between those who use it. They feel safe. It’s a way of recognizing a tongzhi, or an ally.

But the internet was a space of renewal and experimentation, and soon, new competitors cropped up. And as almost everyone in China migrated onto social media platforms like WeChat, Douban, and Weibo, queer communities went with them. Here, debates blossomed and thrived: In 2012, Weibo account “Sailor Stars Lesbians” criticized queer activism for not integrating feminist ideas, which sparked a long-running self-examination in the community.

These online spaces provided an escape for many, including Mei, who grew up in southern China during the noughties. He lived in a third-tier city where clan culture still held strong, and each addition to the family was hewn onto their ancestral tombstones. Every boy was expected to amass some savings by working in a larger city, then come back and build a house. The city’s main industry was making sneakers — not New Balance, but New Bluence. People who had money ran the factories, and those who didn’t worked in them.

When he was 18, Mei came out to his friends. They were accepting at first, but soon turned to tormenting him. Mei was repeating his last year of high school, aiming to get better grades for entrance into a highly-ranked university. They threatened him that he’d never get to university if his teachers found out.

He tried to be less niang, less effeminate. He tried deepening his voice, but his bullies didn’t notice. He came out to his parents, but they saw his sexuality as something embarrassing, a fault for him to hide. They still do, he said. 

“In small towns, without the internet, you can’t find people like you,” he said.

Online, Mei found gay porn and danmei — romance literature, often consumed and written by straight women, in which the main protagonists are both men. To meet other gay men, he turned to dating apps like Jack’d, but that was also often disappointing. His first encounter was with a man in his early twenties in his hometown. The man didn’t give his name or profession. They met only once to hook up, in a hotel which charged customers 30 yuan (around $5) for three hours of use, and the man blocked him afterwards. These offline encounters were far from anything resembling a community, but they answered some of his needs.

As a teenager, Mei felt that his online and offline lives were bifurcated. That changed once he left for university in one of China’s largest cities, and joined its queer student society. He felt like he was finally around people like him. He described himself as a diantong when he joined: a basic gay who just wanted to “be gay, be fabulous.” He engaged with feminism and other political movements, self-identifying as a baizuo — a term used to criticize people with Western leftist ideologies, and which he embraces.

“In small towns, without the internet, you can’t find people like you.”

Gradually, he felt both selves finally becoming one and the same. In 2015, his second year of college, Mei began running his society’s WeChat account. Queer societies’ public accounts were vital for their outreach, as they were the best way to spread news of events and gain an audience. At the time, Mei didn’t feel it was illicit, or something that would be shut down — there were many such accounts sharing events which focused on queer advocacy, lifestyle, and public education. Only accounts which showed pornographic content drew the attention of the censors.

His university also saw his society as a way to showcase the school’s openness and tolerance. The society had allies within the administration, like the teacher who agreed to sponsor their society. Student societies at Mei’s university even formed a loose alliance so they could repost each other’s content on WeChat easily.

Back then, many of them regarded Mei’s society as a role model —  the content that he posted like articles on “What To Do as an LGBTQ Student” or “How Universities Should Step Up in Fighting Stigma” often got the most reshares. Queer students got leave from their schools to attend conferences, sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund, that brought together queer people from all over China. It presented itself as an educational initiative, though many of those who participated had strong political views.

Between 2015 and 2018, many of these societies emerged. One was started by a 20-year-old woman who asked to be referred to by her English name, Kevin. She grew up in a village in rural Zhejiang, where her grandfather treated her like the grandson he wished he’d had. With short hair and stereotypically boyish clothes, Kevin was often called a “T,” or tomboy, though she doesn’t particularly like the term. “I don’t want to be labeled,” she said. “I don’t want to be trapped in a heterosexual framework.” She doesn’t remember these aspects of her appearance as being active choices — her family had little money, so it was simply cheaper to keep her hair short and give her hand-me-downs from her male cousins. 

Kevin’s classmates considered her some kind of in-between creature — their most frequent refrain was “not male, not female.”  She had just a few friends, one of whom she had a silent crush on for two years. She decided to come out and tell her friend how she felt. Her friend said they couldn’t, as two women, be together.

The only thing that made life more bearable for Kevin was getting good grades. In China, even bullies want to get along with people who succeed at school. With studying consuming much of her time, she never went online.

At that time, NGOs and queer societies held many events and workshops about gender theory, human rights, feminism, and democracy. Attending those activities, they made her start to see the world in a different way, she said. Because other schools had queer societies, she felt her own should have one too, that it was the right thing to do. At the time, she didn’t think that forming such a society was risky in any way. 

She recruited people to the society using QQ, putting up posters all over her school. They opened a WeChat account to post about events and engage their members. Before she formed this society, she had low self-esteem and doubts about her identity; but after, she began to accept her sexuality. She found that other members of the society became more open and happier. “Through action, we dealt with our trauma,” she said.

It’s hard to pin down exactly when the environment began to change. 

Mei remembers that it was around 2016 that nationalist influencers began stalking the internet, looking for targets to rile their fanbase and drive traffic to their own accounts. Their most common target was feminist influencers, but they occasionally took aim at prominent queer accounts. There are some pockets of thought in China that believe queerness is a Western invention, and as such is against traditional Chinese values.

The rise of nationalism meant that simple comparisons became problematic. Student societies often reported the victories of queer communities in Hong Kong or Taiwan, but were accused of making implicit critiques of China. Even within the gay community, there were nationalists who argued against reporting any news that cast China in a bad light when it came to queer rights. They considered it “handing a knife to foreign forces.”

Comments like “China isn’t doing enough for LGBTQI rights,” or “Taiwan is doing better,” which might have been acceptable a few years ago, were now a sign that you were a traitor to the country. In WeChat groups, student societies found that people would sometimes ask them to state their position on Taiwan or Hong Kong. Mei felt there was no need to reply, as any response could be used against you. As for nationalist influencers, he felt replying to them would bring them nothing but attention from the administration. 

There was periodic censorship now, too. E-commerce sites like Taobao occasionally took down products that contained words like “rainbow” or tongxinlian (same-sex love), though new products would appear. The same words were intermittently blocked on social media platforms like Douban and WeChat. 

In schools, it became harder to operate. During a recruitment drive for her society in 2017, Kevin interviewed a potential member who sat before them, shrunken into himself. He identified as gay, and said he’d been hurt psychologically by others who didn’t accept him. She and the others weren’t sure how helpful he’d be, but they wanted him to join so that they could look after him. The next day, he went to the school administration with a list of their names. One of the society’s members later learned that he had a girlfriend.

Mei’s school administration began to tighten its controls the following year, he said. The university began to ask them to take down queer-related content and invitations to events, and requested that even “feminism”-related articles  discuss “equality between men and women” instead. It became harder to secure space to hold meetings, and security cameras were installed, making it easier for the administration to track which rooms were being used by whom. Mei’s society continued to agree to the school’s demands to delete articles and stop offline activities, but, already, its members felt this was a slow march to being shut down.

“They already knew everything; they were just asking so that you knew that they did.”

He found that those around him were increasingly under scrutiny for their online speech. One of his friends, Lengnuan, who’d posted about Taiwan and Hong Kong, had his Weibo account suspended 13 times, and got both doxxed and outed by an online stalker. 

In early 2019, one of Mei’s classmates was also doxxed for her political comments, and the name of the university she attended was revealed. Soon after, the administration asked to meet with her. Mei accompanied her, under the pretext of being her boyfriend. Before he arrived, he deleted banned foreign apps from his phone and helped his friend delete any posts from her social media accounts which might be considered politically sensitive. They were separated and interrogated about their social media activity, and asked questions like, “What do you think of your country?” 

He compares it to being slowly sanded down. “They already knew everything; they were just asking so that you knew that they did,” he said. His friend stayed there until 5 a.m., writing an explanation for her online posts. Mei managed to leave a few hours before she did. They hadn’t found anything on him — despite having an organizing role, he was cautious enough to keep a low profile on social media. 

The pressure led some societies to disband, and others to scale back their activities. 

In 2019, police broke up a workshop on gender theory and feminism which Kevin’s group had participated in. Some of the students were interrogated, and the police informed the school about their activities. The society’s remaining members decided to disband. They’d seen that other universities had withheld diplomas from students involved in advocacy, and they didn’t want the same to happen to them.

When this year’s ban happened, the WeChat account of Kevin’s society wasn’t among those shut down — because it was so inactive that it had, in effect, been closed two years ago. Through 2020, the year preceding the ban, Mei’s society organized almost no events apart from their book club. So when he realized the account was gone, he wasn’t surprised at all.

There still isn’t any explanation for what line these societies crossed. Mei thinks it’s because tongzhi communities are seen as counter to the demographic objectives of the government; or, as his friend Lengnuan puts it, “they want more babies.” Leo thinks that it wasn’t directed against queer pages directly, but rather a general crackdown on unregistered organizations. For him, it was related to the government’s “Operation Qinglang,” which aims to purify cyberspace by deleting posts and banning accounts. 

Nationalist influencers posit their own narratives — that queer societies are inherently suspect and possibly traitorous. After the ban, nationalist influencer Ziwuxiashi, who has a Weibo following of 820,000, declared that he would offer rewards for any information that showed queer societies were working with foreign forces. 

“Apps make meeting people easier, but finding emotional support on them is difficult.”

Some societies have escaped the crackdown and continue to post, and some people have moved off Chinese social media altogether. Anne, who led a queer society, said that she now feels more comfortable on Facebook and Instagram, which are accessible only by a VPN and out of the reach of the authorities. But it’s no replacement for the accounts that they’ve lost. Anne’s society’s WeChat account, where she said that she’d built a whole new identity, was banned shortly after our interview with her. Her last safe space now, she said, is under her duvet.

With so many community groups now shuttered, queer strangers tend to meet one-on-one, instead of in groups. “Apps make meeting people easier,” said Leo. “But finding emotional support on them is difficult.” 

Though these apps present themselves as allies to the gay community, they have aligned with the censors. Blued assigns each user “rainbow credits,” which they deduct if users violate community regulations. Leo has found this includes trying to organize an activity.

When a user loses credits, their profile faces more restrictions, the final stage of which is being frozen. Blued’s parent company is increasingly gathering a monopoly over queer online interactions — in August 2020, it bought the largest lesbian dating app, Lesdo, which it shut down this year.

To run a queer organization in China now may mean making the same compromises. Mei thinks it’s possible to work on issues aligned with government priorities, like HIV/AIDS, but not anything related to rights or advocacy of any kind. In that environment, it might be possible to be a corporate, sanitized queer person, acquiescent to the state and profitable for companies. Mei said he considers this a kind of internalized form of weiwen, the government’s efforts to maintain stability. It’s a reality that could push anyone who doesn’t conform further into the periphery. 

Queer groups haven’t entirely given up hope. They keep organizing, albeit often offline, in the expectation that restrictions may one day relax again. But their priority for now is simply to be safe, to survive. “Faced with a state as powerful as ours, there’s not much you can do,” Mei said.