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LGBT activists respond to TV show ban

Popular Chinese internet show Addicted was taken offline in February

February saw the globally reported removal of hugely popular Chinese internet TV show Addicted – which revolved around a gay relationship between two teenage boys – from Chinese streaming sites. China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) then issued an eight-page document of new guidelines concerning depictions of what it referred to as ‘abnormal sexual relationships’, listing homosexuality, incest and extramarital affairs as examples of ‘vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content’ that had no place on mainstream television.

The ruling was also part of a wider drive to purge anything deemed to ‘exaggerate the dark side of society’, a decidedly broad notion that also includes depictions of smoking, drinking, reincarnation, witchcraft and excess cleavage. We were not able to reach Addicted’s director Chai Jidan for comment, although she told news outlet ifeng.com that there was ‘no reason [for the ruling]. It’s a result of a broader context.’

Queer filmmaker, writer and activist Fan Popo confesses that he was ‘shocked’ by the new policies which impact not only on film and television in the mainstream media, but the internet. ‘I had some sleepless nights,’ he says. ‘It’s certainly not good for independent filmmakers who thought that the internet could be the space for them to distribute their works.’ What remains to be seen is how much the ban will be enforced – Fan is worried that his most recent work Pink Dads, a sequel to 2012’s Mama Rainbow which focused on the parents of gay individuals in China, has its days numbered. Both programmes are currently viewable on Tencent, the only streaming service that was happy to cooperate with Fan.

Despite the dismay of China’s queer community at large (not to mention the 10-million-strong viewership of Addicted, who were left furiously bereft of the series’ final three episodes) LGBT activists in China have managed to remain pragmatic about the reality of life on the ground here – after all, they’ve faced hurdles before in their fight for recognition, and are sure to do so again. According to leading LGBT rights campaigner and filmmaker Wei Xiaogang, there’s a bright side to such controversies, in that they serve to raise the profile of LGBT issues – within a day of Addicted’s cancellation, for example, the hashtag ‘Removal of Addicted’ was shared 110 million times on Weibo, and then the story was picked up by the Western media. ‘All these actions are good for [Chinese] society, because it makes LGBT people more visible,’ he asserts.

In turn, words can transform into deeds. ‘You use these things to raise awareness, and mobilise people,’ continues Wei. Fan, who last year successfully sued SARFT for the ban of Mama Rainbow, agrees that while the move might seem to force LGBT issues back into the closet, it could inspire the opposite. ‘More cases need to be made – when I launched mine, I never thought it would be accepted, and the result was an even bigger surprise,’ he claims. ‘So I always encourage people to take action. Challenges are always opportunities.’

Peng Yanzi, director of Guangzhou-based campaign group LGBT Rights Advocacy, also experienced a shock, high-profile legal victory against the Chinese ‘conversion clinic’ which attempted to ‘treat’ his homosexuality through electroshock therapy in 2014. Peng is now taking advantage of Freedom of Information Act-style legislation in China which requires the censors to make public their reasoning behind certain rulings. In March, he submitted an Open Government Informational (OGI) request to ascertain under which law the government believes it has the right to limit the appearance of homosexuals in broadcasts.

Peng alleges that there is no lawful basis, and he predicts ‘they will either not reply, or give a vague or sub-standard response which avoids my questions.’ Legally, SARFT will have to reply within 15 working days – if not, Peng will have the right to pursue legal action (the process was ongoing at time of press). Peng’s previous experience, where he cited emotional and physical damages caused by the clinic as the basis of the lawsuit, is the precedent he is following. ‘Because there are no laws to [specifically] protect LGBT rights, this is a good way to tackle the problem,’ he reveals.

It also goes without saying that scouring gay characters from television won’t make them go away in real life – nor does it prevent people from finding out about LGBT issues elsewhere. According to Wei, the ruling is almost redundant in the modern world. ‘No matter what you do, people will find a way to know,’ he says. ‘People who use the internet [in China] are mainly younger, and understand more diverse situations.’ Luckily, they’re probably more likely to understand VPNs too, and are able to catch Addicted’s final few episodes on YouTube, where the show remains uploaded.