China’s pornography laws are a backdoor for censorship

China’s pornography laws are a backdoor for censorship
© Getty Images

In an assault on freedom of expression, a court in China sentenced a successful novelist, Ms. Liu, to 10 years in prison on October 31 for including explicit homoerotic content in her work. The charge against her was making and selling “obscene material” for profit. Information about the case has just recently been circulated online, generating a widespread outcry on social media against censorship as well as the disproportionate and excessive severity of her sentence.

The writer, who uses the pen name Tianyi, was arrested in 2017, after the publication of her novel “Occupy.” Pornography is illegal in China. The 1997 penal code forbids depicting sexual acts except for medical or artistic purposes. According to police in Anhui Province, in eastern China, the book described “obscene behavior between males,” including “violence, abuse, and humiliation.”

“BoysLove” (BL) a genre of homoerotic fiction aimed primarily at women - is popular in China, leading to a proliferation of self-published online books. "Guardian,” a sci-fi story in the “BoysLove” genre, was adapted and released as a web-based series. It garnered 1.8 billion views before being pulled from the video streaming platform Youku even though the gay relationship between the male protagonists had been downplayed and disguised.

While “BoysLove” is a burgeoning phenomenon, depictions of same-sex desire have a long history in Chinese literature. “Passion of the cut sleeve,” a common euphemism for homosexuality in China, originates with the famous story of Emperor Ai, who awoke to find his male lover, Dong Xian, asleep beside him and cut his own sleeve rather than disturb him. And a pillar in the canon of Chinese literature, the 18th century novel "Dream of the Red Chamber," makes extensive reference to same-sex desire.

Despite the fact that homosexuality is neither a crime nor regarded as an illness in China, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people face widespread discrimination. "Ji jian" (anal sex between men) was removed from the penal code as early as 1907, but decades later, in 1984, a National Supreme People’s Court case expressly included ji jian under the rubric of “other hooligan activities,” until that too was removed from a revised criminal code in 1997.

In 2001, the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders. Even so, the government closely monitors public expression of LGBT identities. And contrary to Chinese law that requires a diagnosis prior to treatment, “conversion therapies," in some cases including electroshock treatment, are offered in private and public clinics, indicating intense family pressure on LGBT people to change.

LGBT content is specifically subject to censorship in Chinese media. In 2016, the government ordered the removal from the internet of China’s first online gay-themed TV series. And in June 2017, under the government’s direction, the China Netcasting Service Association issued new guidelines that require removing all videos featuring same-sex relationship content from the internet – a vital forum for networking and communication for LGBT people.

The guidelines include a category of “abnormal sexual relationships and sexual behaviors” that lists homosexuality alongside sexual assault, abuse and violence, hence characterizing homosexuality as abnormal and abusive.

The social media network Weibo announced in April 2018 that it would remove all gay content from the service — a decision that was reversed after a massive response on social media. In July, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a further directive, instructing relevant authorities to “strictly control programs [and] monitor and clean up harmful and vulgar content that might infringe on the physical and mental health of young people.”

The conflation of homosexuality with obscenity by public broadcast authorities and the disproportionate sentence handed down to Ms. Liu is rightly being condemned — this is a case of censorship, but censorship with a twist of homophobic prejudice. Chinese authorities should stop using pornography laws to further curtail freedom of expression.

Graeme Reid is the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.