The internet, in its early evolution, was envisioned as a space free from governmental interference, devoid of a “Gatekeeper”, a decentralized self-regulated community. This ideology is rooted in the foundational ideals of Silicon Valley: to construct a digital ecosystem grounded in “Spontaneous Order” (Castells, 2002). The internet not only serves as a global platform for sharing information and knowledge but also incubates a diverse range of digital cultures and communities. From the early hacker culture to contemporary memes and slang, to forums and social media communities, all have evolved as spaces where individuals gather based on shared interests or beliefs (Castells, 2002). Especially for the LGBTQ community, the internet offers a “digital sanctuary,” providing them a space to interact and support each other, especially in the face of real-world oppression or discrimination.
However, due to geopolitical considerations, the openness of the internet is not uniform across countries. Taking China as an example, local policies aim not only to extract value from digital information and culture but, more critically, to control and shape it to ensure socio-political stability (Lin & De Kloet, 2019). Given the stringent internet censorship, which includes a blend of platform algorithm strategies (Algorithmic Curation) and a vast manual review workforce of over 100,000 (Gillespie, 2018), how is this digital culture molded and influenced? Particularly, in the face of content moderation, does the unique approach of China’s LGBTQ community amount to a distinct internet culture?
Creative Compliance: China’s LGBTQ Digital Resistance as Internet Culture
In China, LGBTQ content frequently becomes the target of online censorship. Specific policies mandate social media platforms to prohibit the “display or promotion of atypical relationships” and “non-mainstream love and marital statuses” (Liao, 2019). As Yu, a 22-year-old university student, poignantly remarks, the country ‘constantly implements headstrong policies. Then you realize that the country actually doesn’t care about you … you belong to a social class whose voices are not heard by anyone.’ （Kong, 2019）. This sentiment echoes the deeper struggles and emotional turmoil faced by the LGBTQ community in a restrictive socio-political environment. Nonetheless, such content regulation might have inadvertently facilitated the emergence of a unique LGBTQ internet culture in China. To maintain some level of visibility under strict content moderation, the LGBTQ community has adopted various creative compliance strategies, including the use of puns, specific hashtags, and memes (Ai et al., 2023).
The mechanics behind this strategic use of language are based on “textual positioning techniques” (Ai et al., 2023). For instance, the Chinese LGBTQ community on TikTok (Douyin) has extensively employed certain jargons and hashtags, like referring to a same-sex partner as a “roommate”, and using #1 and #0 to represent the Top and Bottom roles in male homosexual relationships, #彩虹 (directly translated as rainbow), #txl (initials for homosexuality in Pinyin), and #通訊錄 (a homophone for homosexuality in Chinese) (Ai et al., 2023). This strategy involves repurposing everyday words with new meanings associated with LGBTQ concepts, aiming to diminish detection risks from algorithms and human reviewers.
Gillespie mentioned that in countries without regulations akin to the U.S.’s ‘The Section 230 safe harbor’, such as China, internet intermediaries typically collaborate directly with the government for proactive removal or review of content, to avoid being held accountable for the dissemination of unlawful content (Gillespie, 2018). Interestingly, this doesn’t imply that Chinese social media platforms entirely endorse the state’s online censorship strategies. Douyin, for instance, chooses not to disclose its moderation criteria entirely, possibly influenced by the “Weibo incident” where Weibo faced backlash from over 60 million users for overtly censoring LGBTQ content (Liao, 2019). Douyin might tacitly approve the LGBTQ community’s “creative compliance” approach. Against the backdrop of an extensive manual review team, Douyin still hosts numerous LGBTQ-themed content creators, with some even amassing over 5,000,000 followers. This suggests that Douyin might be navigating a middle ground between government directives and its user base, potentially striking an unspoken agreement or understanding.
From Openness to Constraint: A Tale of Two LGBTQ culture production in Taiwan and China
While digital culture arising from geopolitical considerations and negotiations with social media platforms is distinct, some scholars argue that these online cultural outputs aren’t genuine “forms of culture”. Expressions primarily based on puns, memes, and jargon might achieve selective visibility, but their obscurity to the general public limits their circulation and popularity. Such “creative compliance” is viewed as having limited societal impact and fleeting existence, unlikely to create lasting influence (Ai et al., 2023).
Looking at Greater China, Taiwan, primarily Chinese speaking, stands in stark contrast to China regarding its LGBTQ cultural output. In 2019, Taiwan became the first region in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. With a comparatively open government and some policies supporting LGBTQ rights as a strategy to garner votes, Taiwan’s LGBTQ cultural output not only mirrors local social issues but also has a profound influence in advancing equal rights, blending artistic and aesthetic values (Kong, 2019).
For instance, the Taiwanese film “Your Name Engraved Herein” authentically reflects the discrimination faced by homosexuals in the 1990s. The film not only broke the opening week box office records in 2020 but also received five nominations for the Golden Horse Awards. Similarly, the film “Dear Ex” highlighted the issue of “gay wives”, drawing significant public attention and indirectly accelerating the legalization of same-sex marriage. In the same vein, singer Jolin Tsai’s song “玫瑰少年（Rose boy in English, offical named Womxnly)” heightened public awareness about bully against the LGBTQ community in schools.
Seeking Spaces in Silence: Navigating Constraints in Digital Expression
In contrast, China’s LGBTQ culture is more like an extension or variation of internet meme culture or hashtag culture, resembling more of a subculture or micro-culture. For Chinese LGBTQ-themed creators, they face the dilemma of no public distribution channels, strict censorship by Beijing, and no financial support (Shaw & Zhang, 2018). However, I believe this fundamentally represents internet culture. Even if its societal impact is minimal and transient, it can still be viewed as a branch of internet culture. It essentially allows a subset of people with common interests or beliefs to spontaneously come together, continually evolving into an online cultural community. However, it’s undeniable that the emergence of this unique culture is bittersweet and born out of necessity – more of a silver lining in an environment where democracy is muted.
Notably, this form of creative compliance isn’t the sole example of “expression in times of muted voices”. For instance, the A4 Protest during the COVID era in China, widely recognized, serves as another instance. Most participants in this protest were students from renowned higher education institutions in China, who chose to hold blank A4 size papers as a sign of protest on the streets. By using such innocuous items as symbols, protesters reduced the applicability of content moderation during online dissemination, rendering content moderation ineffective and making it difficult for the government to label their actions (Che & Chien, 2022).
In summary, this unique digital culture, birthed from specific political backgrounds and content review strategies, reflects how individuals seek spaces for self-expression within constraints. While this culture’s emergence might not be voluntary, it’s a reluctant necessity. Although this mode of cultural expression might be indirect, it perhaps remains the optimal choice within the current political climate.
Ai, Q., Song, Y., & Zhan, N. (2023). Creative compliance and selective visibility: How Chinese queer uploaders performing identities on the Douyin platform. Media, Culture & Society, 01634437231174345. https://doi.org/10.1177/01634437231174345
Castells, M. (2002). The Internet Galaxy. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199255771.001.0001
Che, C., & Chien, A. C. (2022). Memes, puns and blank sheets of paper: China’s creative acts of protest. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/28/world/asia/china-protests-blank-sheets.html
Kong, T. S. K. (2019). Transnational queer sociological analysis of sexual identity and civic-political activism in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. The British Journal of Sociology, 70(5), 1904–1925. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-4446.12697
Liao, S. (2019). “#IAmGay# What About You?”: Storytelling, Discursive Politics, and the Affective Dimension of Social Media Activism against Censorship in China. International Journal of Communication, 13(0), Article 0. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/10376
Lin, J., & De Kloet, J. (2019). Platformization of the Unlikely Creative Class: Kuaishou and Chinese Digital Cultural Production. Social Media + Society, 5(4), 205630511988343. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305119883430
Shaw, G., & Zhang, X. (2018). Cyberspace and gay rights in a digital China: Queer documentary filmmaking under state censorship. China Information, 32(2), 270–292. https://doi.org/10.1177/0920203X17734134
Gillespie, T. (2018). Regulation of and by platforms. SAGE Publications Ltd, https://doi.org/10.4135/9781473984066