Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    How LGBTQ Content Built, Then Vanished From, China’s Streamers

    China’s LGBTQ content creators bet big on streaming. But when regulators came for digital platforms, they got caught in the crossfire.
    Mar 29, 2023#LGBT

    China’s tolerance for LGBTQ content seems to continuously swing between greater acceptance and sudden restriction. During the former, domestic and international outlets hail growing representation for LGBTQ individuals as a sign of an increasingly progressive Chinese society. During the latter, headlines proclaim LGBTQ communities face dismal prospects amid a resurgence of traditional gender and family norms.

    These discussions typically paint China’s LGBTQ media landscape as a tug of war between a creative, progressive younger generation and conservative regulators. After years of research on the subject, however, I’ve come to believe that such narratives fail to capture LGBTQ content creators’ position within China’s media industry.

    To be clear, I am not denying that Chinese LGBTQ content creators have been forced to survive — and against all odds even thrive — in regulatory blind spots by cleverly packaging their stories with less provocative keywords like “youth” and “romance” instead of “Boys’ Love” or “LGBTQ.” Instead, I believe it’s important to look deeper into an ecosystem that allows Chinese queer culture to persist, not merely as a matter of representation or expression, but because it’s good business.

    That means examining China’s internet giants. LGBTQ content production rarely operates in its own niche. Quite the opposite, creators rely on huge streaming platforms like iQiyi, Tencent, and Youku for funding and marketing support. These platforms, in return, use queer content to pinkwash their reputations while pursuing younger, more liberal audiences.

    A milestone of this reciprocal relationship came in late 2015 and early 2016, when two LGBTQ-themed web dramas, “Addiction” and “Go Princess Go,” became national hits back-to-back. The shows’ success proved the marketability of LGBTQ stories, not just within the LGBTQ community, but also among young audiences.

    But LGBTQ content creators’ alliances with internet giants have always been conditional. Streaming media platforms’ support for queer culture is at best speculative; it can be, and often is, withdrawn when the political winds shift. Indeed, in some cases, streaming media sites have imposed restrictions on LGBTQ content that go far beyond those of the cultural authorities.

    More importantly, this alliance, opportunistic and vulnerable as it is, inadvertently rendered LGBTQ content a casualty of China’s latest regulatory push — not on culture-war issues, but against the country’s platform economy.

    In 2020, the Chinese government issued a warning against the “disorderly expansion of capital.” Soon after, it launched a high-profile anti-monopoly campaign. LGBTQ content creators quickly found themselves swept up in the campaign and attacked, not along traditional culture war lines, but as examples of capital’s “disordered” expansion. Parallel campaigns were waged against what regulators termed “chaotic fandom activities” and unconventional gender presentation, a phenomenon exemplified by the so-called sissy pants idols, many of them straight, appearing on television.

    Idol culture makes an interesting study for its associations with queer culture and similar swings between periods of relaxed oversight and sudden tightening. And like streaming, queer social media icons can be swept up in broader campaigns to clean up social media platforms and content. Seemingly for every Guo Beibei — a phenomenally popular internet celebrity who lost her account after running afoul of regulations on “vulgar” content — there’s a Hu Yexin. A former contestant on the idol show “Super Girl” in 2005, Hu enjoyed a renaissance last year after her angry cover of a pop song went viral. Currently, Hu regularly hosts livestreams on short-video platform Douyin and performs gigs in gay clubs.

    In hindsight, LGBT creators’ reliance on streaming platforms proved a double-edged sword. Although the partnership boosted their visibility, it ended up being another case of putting all of one’s eggs in the same basket.

    Yet, as the experience of their social media-celebrity counterparts suggests, this reliance isn’t easy to break. Nevertheless, while the past two years were unkind to LGBTQ content creators and platforms alike, there are reasons for optimism. Time and again, when offered a choice, Chinese audiences have proven receptive to queer content and themes. What’s needed is not an alliance with capital, disordered or otherwise, but more diverse, grassroots expressions and practices of queer culture.

    Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Shijue/VCG)