On Monday, Qiu Bai, a 22-year-old student from the city of Guangzhou, China, took the Chinese Ministry of Education to court in Beijing to demand that it change the way college textbooks talk about homosexuality. Right now, most of them call it a disease.
The trial went mostly as Qiu had expected. A government official said the language in the textbooks did not infringe on her rights as a gay student, and refused to respond directly to her complaints that the textbooks were spreading false— and potentially dangerous — information. The judge announced that she would make a decision "another day" (which generally means in about three months). Then the hearing adjourned.
A few hours later, however, Qiu and her fellow student activists got a surprise. Chinese reporters who had interviewed them earlier in the day called with unpleasant news: The government had ordered them not to cover the case.
"I’m surprised and angry that our work is being censored," Qiu said in an interview. "Speaking out is not as easy as I thought it would be."
Qiu’s appearance in court will probably amount to nothing more than a high-profile show trial. The government allowed her to question an Education Ministry official, but doesn’t seem to have any intention of changing its textbooks to make them less hostile to the country’s LGBTQ citizens. She was allowed to question the system, but not to challenge it in any meaningful way.
The government’s handling of the case also serves as a reminder that while Beijing may be slowly liberalizing its hard-line stance toward things like its one-child policy, it still has a long way to go on gay rights. While international attention can sometimes pressure the Chinese government to change social policies, Qiu’s case shows that it can also backfire, causing the government to silence the activist and bar China’s journalists from even writing about their demands.
China has a history of intolerance toward its gay community
Homosexuality has long been generally taboo in China. Under Chair Mao, the government cracked down on any kind of nontraditional family structure, including same-sex relationships. This was when the government popularized the notion of homosexuality as a mental disease. Until the early 2000s, all laws surrounding the issue were extremely vague, giving local governments wide latitude to repress gay citizens. Police would regularly search areas where gay people were known to congregate and arrest them for the crime of "hooliganism."
It wasn’t until 2001 that homosexuality was finally decriminalized and taken off China’s official list of psychiatric illnesses (the United States made the move in 1973). The problem is that most textbooks in China have not adjusted their language accordingly, prompting Qiu’s lawsuit.
Her case comes as other Chinese activists head to court to try to change the country’s handing of LGBTQ issues. In April, in the first Chinese case to ever address same-sex unions, a judge ruled that a same-sex couple, Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang, could not marry. (In the United States, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2003.) Two months later, Yu Hu sued a psychiatric hospital in Henan province for forcing him to undergo "gay conversion therapy" after his family found out he was gay.
Like Qiu, Yu, Sun, and Hu have become prominent activists receiving considerable media attention in China and around the world. Qiu has been working to change the textbooks for the past two years, but had never had work censored by the government until now. Beijing may have felt forced to act by a desire to prevent the case from garnering too much attention in the West. Quiet activism is okay; the sort of work that could embarrass the government is not.
"If you get branded a troublemaker, everything can flick over. You can be branded as a kind of social order problem. And that can be dangerous," said Sarah Biddulph, a professor at the University of Melbourne Law School who specializes in the Chinese legal system.
Unlike most other lawsuits that are brought against government agencies in China — which are typically quietly settled with little to no public notice — Qiu’s case has international appeal. LGBTQ activists from around the world are watching to see what happens. This kind of international pressure has the potential to help Qiu eventually get the textbooks changed.
"A case like this makes China look bad. The idea is to appeal to progressive minded people, the international press. Perhaps this will be sufficiently embarrassing that someone in the Ministry of Education will slowly, quietly put pressure on the leadership, and things will start to change," said Neil Diamant, professor of Asian Law and Society at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
At Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, where Qiu is a student, her fudaoyuan — a dean who monitors student behavior — warned her not to talk to any foreign reporters. She ignored the warning.
In the interview, Qiu said that she thinks someone from the government gave her fudaoyuan this message for her. She isn’t sure why the government has suddenly decided to censor her hearing in Chinese media, but her refusal to submit to her fudaoyuan’s request could be part of the reason.
Now Qiu’s high visibility seems to be working against her. When she filed this lawsuit, one of Qiu’s main goals was to spread awareness about the textbooks’ harsh and inaccurate language. But now that reports on the hearing have been censored, most people in China won’t have the opportunity to hear about her most recent activism.
Since she started trying to engage the government on the textbook issue, Qiu has treaded carefully. Monday wasn’t the first time that she met with Ministry of Education authorities in court. She was scheduled to have her first court case about the textbooks last November. But after a preliminary hearing, the Ministry of Education officer called Qiu’s lawyer. He told him that Qiu should write a formal complaint letter to the Ministry and drop the case. Even though she’d been through this kind of process before — with no success — she agreed.
"Last time, Qiu wanted to be polite. She didn’t want the Ministry of Education to lose face. If you file a lawsuit in China, sometimes people will think you’re too aggressive — that you’re a troublemaker," said Xia Xu, a student activist who works closely with Qiu.
Questioning the Chinese government is okay — but only to a point
To be a successful activist in China, you have to strike the right balance. Twenty years ago, it was unheard of for any Chinese citizen — let alone a young, lesbian student — to file a lawsuit against a large government agency in China.
That began to change in the 1980s as the country opened up economically and expanded its dealings with the West. Beijing passed a series of sweeping legal reforms and, in 1989, approved a law giving citizens the right to bring a case against the government. At first, citizens were hesitant to take advantage of this legislation, but over time, more and more people began to use these formal channels to voice their complaints.
Most Chinese civilians who choose to file lawsuits against the government in Beijing move smoothly through the process. Their cases are noncontroversial and, win or lose, they return home without much fanfare. For example, the courts deal with a lot of farmers filing lawsuits over land disputes.
With the explosion of social media, a Chinese citizen who questions the government could attract widespread media attention — and, potentially, the public’s attention and support. But that very notoriety can be dangerous: If the government decides that you pose any kind of risk to the Chinese Communist Party, they can easily shut you down.
"The courts have to maintain some semblance of legitimacy and rule by law," said Diamant. "The government thinks certain cases will attract foreign media attention. As long as the courts give some sense that they will be open to hear these cases, they show they have legitimacy."
It’s hard to know what will happen next in the fight for LGBTQ rights in China. While it’s promising that Chinese courts are agreeing to hear more and more LGBTQ-related cases, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any closer to giving activists the answers they want.
Qiu, for her part, doesn’t plan to drop her fight. No matter what the judge decides in three months, Qiu will continue to try to raise awareness about the textbooks. When she was a freshman in college, doing her psychology homework, she panicked when she read that she had a mental disorder. She doesn’t want any other students to have that experience.
Caroline Kitchener is the author of Post Grad: Five Women and their First Year Out of the Ivy League, forthcoming from HarperCollins in April. She lives in Washington, DC.