Contrary to popular perception, the Chinese Communist Party’s control over online discourse is not absolute; complete control would be impractical in a country as large, diverse, and dynamic as the PRC. In reality, China’s internet is a battlefield, upon which aggrieved socioeconomic groups renegotiate social norms and policy decisions, in a continual tug-of-war between internet activists seeking change and liberty and a government that prioritizes stability and control above all.
Recent events underscore this dynamic. In the past several months alone, Chinese internet users have launched a series of large-scale online protests over controversial issues, including economic inequality, environmental degradation, food and drug safety, and child protection.
Some of these movements have been more successful than others. While the CCP has immense power to control and channel public dissent, it has not won every battle. What factors might explain those instances in which activists have gained modest successes, and those where their demands have fallen on deaf ears? Two recent cases are particularly revealing. The first, where activists enjoyed some success in influencing policy, relates to LGBT issues; the second, which authorities have alternately ignored and tried to suppress, is China’s homegrown #MeToo movement.
#iamgay Scores a Modest Victory
This past spring, a vast number of Chinese netizens rallied against party authorities after LGBT-related content was erased from Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms. On April 13, Weibo announced it had launched a three-month campaign to bring its platform into compliance with a new PRC cybersecurity law by erasing content associated with homosexuality, pornography, and violence (Weibo, April 13). Within a single day, Weibo’s announcement had drawn more than 24,000 comments, and was forwarded more than 110,000 times (Reuters, April 13). As the platform deleted content, advocates for LGBT rights adopted variations of the hashtag #iamgay to express their indignation. Some denounced Weibo’s censorship as a re-marginalization of homosexuals that undermined the legal decriminalization of homosexuality in a 1997 revision of the national penal code.
Three days later, claiming it had been instructed to do so by the “relevant authorities”, Weibo announced that it would “primarily focus on pornographic and violent material” instead of homosexuality, and thanked the public for its input (Weibo, April 16). To the extent that #iamgay persisted in the face of censorship and resulted in policy walkback, it can be considered a success. Why was #iamgay able to succeed—albeit in a limited fashion—where other online movements failed?
Netizens’ Strategy: Moral and Legal Appeals
Critically, #iamgay activists were able to draw on moral arguments and solid legal precedent to make their case. Since 1997, the PRC state has slowly shifted its penal code and medical guidance towards decriminalization and normalization homosexuality (People.com.cn, February 27, 2012; Ministry of Justice, November 6, 1990; Ministry of Justice, May 1, 2004). Though positive legal protections for LGBT individuals remain limited, and broad social consensus on LGBT rights elusive, netizens pointed out that the attempt to censor LGBT-related content was still a rollback of established legal principles. By highlighting earlier legal reforms, activists pushed the state to rectify its contradictory policies. Since the state had already quietly established and endorsed a legal framework for respect and tolerance of the LGBT community, advocates could press for Weibo to walk back its discriminatory content guidelines without having to make a separate, independent case for their community’s legal right to exist.
This framing made the issue one on which the party could not morally equivocate, forcing it ultimately to cede the point. Even the state-run People’s Daily joined the chorus suggesting Weibo should reconsider its stance, publishing a piece advocating a “consensus around respecting other people’s sexual orientation” (People’s Daily, April 15). In so doing, both People’s Daily and #iamgay activists successfully linked censorship with society’s unjust treatment of an entire community, transforming the issue into an emotionally compelling question of justice by layering moral arguments on top of an existing legal framework.
Why the State Backed Down: Low Cost of Acquiescence
It is also important to remember that, from the state’s point of view, the cost of acquiescing to #iamgay critics was low. In the PRC, criticism that might spark collective action is dealt with much more harshly than other forms of complaint (American Political Science Review, May 2013). The CCP likely recognized that giving #iamgay activists their way would result in manageable change, not escalatory engagement, making the political risk of accession low. Additionally, activists’ demands were modest. They did not demand additional rights such as the right to marry their partners or adopt children.
However, despite the ostensible existence of legal protections for LGBT individuals, it may have been the CCP’s ambiguous position on homosexuality that gave rise to Weibo’s misguided announcement in the first place. Despite the 1997 revisions to the penal law and the removal of homosexuality from a list of officially defined mental disorders in 2001, the CCP has never taken a firm stance on the issue. This ambiguity, compounded by the cybersecurity law’s vague statements on protecting the public interest and social morality (National People’s Congress of the PRC), may have led Weibo to issue its guidelines in an overzealous attempt at compliance .
Yet, #iamgay activists were able to exploit the same ambiguity to push back against Weibo. And it was only in the absence of a strong, coherent stance from the CCP—which often styles itself as China’s only legitimate source of moral authority—that a prominent state-run paper like People’s Daily could express dissent on moral grounds. The resulting lack of a “morality lobby”, like those present in Taiwan and South Korea, meant that the political cost of changing course was low. Thus, the ambiguity may have created room for policy debate and change.
It would be simplistic to dismiss this instance of policy revision as an anomaly. The events of #iamgay point to deeper underlying tensions and changes underway in Chinese society.
Parallel Trends and #MeToo Headwinds
Underpinning this incident are two trends, which might seem mutually contradictory at first glance. On the one hand, Xi Jinping’s government has pushed the PRC’s already-repressive system of media control and censorship even further than his predecessors. On the other, Chinese society has continued to grow more energetic, dynamic, and pluralistic. When these trends clash, the censorship regime typically maintains the upper hand, as can be discerned from the long list of subjects now considered politically taboo. However, in cases such as #iamgay, they can come together such that negotiation between the CCP and PRC society serves to define new social norms.
In this respect, there are notable similarities between #iamgay and China’s #MeToo movement. To the extent that the two issues are comparable in broad terms, Chinese netizens and activists in both cases have been inspired by overseas movements. Activists have also reached out to and garnered a degree of sympathy and receptiveness from state affiliated media, a limited success worth noting.
Similarities also exist in the approaches of the two movements. #MeToo activists have also employed the language of morality and justice in promoting their cause. By using this language, they have been able to galvanize support online, despite PRC society’s wide variety of opinions on women’s empowerment and social roles, and a limited public discourse around issues of harassment and consent. As with #iamgay, #MeToo activists have invoked the legal realm, calling for better protections, arbitration mechanisms, and recourse. Supportive university statements and state media-published op-eds, including some by People’s Daily, have also focused on issues of morality and legality (Sohu, April 5; People’s Daily, April 6).
The broad direction of the state’s online response, however, has been very different for the #MeToo movement, which has persisted in starts and stops in the face of vigorous censorship. One key factor driving authorities’ diverging reaction is perceived political risk. The #MeToo movement demands that the rich and powerful be held accountable. Acceding to such demands is, obviously, unappealing to those in power. Additionally, such acknowledgement could undermine the party’s public image and its perceived authority. Further, given that much of China’s population might readily identify with the victims, such calls for responsibility hold a much higher risk of collective action––a central factor galvanizing censorship. From the party’s perspective, the power dynamics of #MeToo pose a different and more consequential challenge than #iamgay.
An Increasingly Contested Domain
What do these cases tell us about new dynamics in state-society relations, especially in the digital age?
The extent of Chinese internet censorship and the party’s use of new technologies to surveil and control should not be trivialized. The authorities have increasingly employed a nimble strategy in their approach to online censorship, calculating, adjusting, and compromising in instances where that is determined to be the optimal approach. But where netizens claim the moral high ground and legal backing and are pragmatic in making demands, they have been able to push for incremental change. Social media platforms can buoy the causes of netizens by facilitating the quick spread of posts and discussion online. Further, they have facilitated visible negotiation. Not only can netizens more easily observe the issues of concern and tactics used by their peers and lend support across geographical distances, but they do so knowing that the authorities must react under the scrutiny of the larger public eye.
The Chinese government’s top-down efforts to dictate social morality and ideology, especially in the name of national security and social harmony, continue to persist. Not every case of censorship will be emotionally or morally compelling to the people and galvanize action, and not every case that is compelling to the people can successfully involve engagement, debate, and revision with the authorities. The limits of online mobilization are evident in the case of the Chinese government’s suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, through measures both online and offline, which have failed to spur much outcry or sympathetic response from Chinese netizens. Where the terms “national security” and “social harmony” are invoked, the cost of engagement for both parties may be far steeper. Moreover, these terms, coupled with other dynamics of Islamophobia, identity politics, and more, may also numb the public to injustices (China Brief, July 25).
As any observer of the Chinese internet can immediately discern, China is by no means a monolith. The clashes between CCP control and an energetic, dynamic society reflect that. China continues to re-negotiate its social norms, identity, policies and balance of interests––and it is increasingly doing so online.
Cheng Li is a senior fellow and director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, where Diana Liang serves as a research assistant.
 See also the Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China, Article 1, Clauses 1, 9, and 12.