Being the Great Firewall of China there has been a social awakening. In the last few days a video of a man on the Beijing Subway proposed to his boyfriend has gone viral on social media due to the bravery of the couple. Thankfully he said yes and the person on one knee was spared public humiliation but the reaction of the crowded carriage was the most interesting part of the whole situation.
China is seen as this hyper-modern society because of its rapid economic growth but is often characterised having not made the same social progression as countries in the West; although some people in the carriage cried “sin” and booed, these people were drowned out by the applause of most of the other people. Furthermore the reaction on social media, which is largely dominated by younger generations, was overwhelmingly supportive of the couple and became a feel-good story across the country. What this reaction has shown is that even in a society that puts a large cultural focus on people having big families, the younger generation are becoming more accepting of same-sex couples.
The Chinese government has an interesting relationship with homosexuality more broadly but progress is, slowly, being made. The official position of the government is ‘the three nos’: no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. Much like the former policy of the US military of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, the policy is deliberately designed to not court controversy by attempting to stand on a middle ground that permits homosexuality but doesn’t talk about it. The problem with such a position is that if sexuality and the LGBT community isn’t spoken about the societal stigmas remain pervasive in Chinese society. Progress has been made in recent years as in 2001 homosexuality was taken off the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses, which, considering the social conservatism of Chinese society, was a massive step forward.
At four separate meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (PPCC)- 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008- Li Yinhe, a sexology scholar and LGBT activist, introduced amendments to Chinese law that would legalise same-sex marriage, all of which were unsuccessful. A government official in response to Ms Yinhe’s attempts argued that same-sex marriage was yet to be legal in most Western countries, and that China is more socially conservative than the West; the thing is, that statement, which was made in March 2006, is no longer applicable as since then South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Argentina, Iceland, France, the US, England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand and Luxembourg have all legalised same-sex marriage nationwide along with many other territories such as the Dutch Caribbean and Greenland. If the Chinese government was waiting for the West to lead the way, I would say that that ship has now sailed.
There is also two more practical reasons for the Chinese government to support same-sex marriage in the near future. Firstly, since the One-Child Policy was introduced in 1978 the Chinese government has been trying to manage the population growth of the country so the country doesn’t put an impossible strain on national resources. The policy has now largely been relaxed but I would argue that legalising same-sex marriage would also stabilise the population, albeit to a much lesser extent.
The 2011 Canadian census revealled that only 9.4% of Canadian same-sex couples were bringing up children; which meant that around 90% were not. If this figure was translated across to China legalising marriage-equality would liberate LGBT people from having to conceive children with partners that they are not sexually attracted to. When I first thought of this point I wasn’t going to put it into the article because gay people are such a small portion of the population (a 2015 YouGov survey in the US found that around 4% of people identified as homosexual), so why have I now put the point in? One word: scale. Due to the size of China’s population the 4% of people that identify as homosexual, if this is also true in China, would amount to around 54 million people, and that number is excluding bisexuals who may take part in same-sex marriage, and transgender people. 54 million people is about the same number of people who live in Croatia, Canada and Australia combined.
Secondly from a Machiavellian power-retention perspective, the younger generations of Chinese society are more open to the LGBT community and, given that they will be the future of the country, it would make sense for the government to appear to be on the side of public opinion because otherwise the Chinese people might demand more democratic rights. Also if you were a part of the Chinese government and it was pointed out that allowing same-sex marriage would put you in the good books of around 54 million people, which in another mind-blowing comparison is slightly fewer people than live in California and Texas combined, it would be foolish to remain totally intransigent on the issue.
Because of this one video on social media Chinese society may see same-sex marriage in the not too distant future. The reason that I’m making such a big deal out of this is that social media is entirely self-contained and the internet is heavily censored; the outpouring of support for this couple came not from Westerners spurring the conversation, but from ordinary people from across the country, especially the young. This acceptance will soon turn into calls for change, and with the Chinese Communist Party determined to maintain its grip on power, I wouldn’t be surprised if same-sex marriage was approved or at least discussed at an upcoming PPCC meeting. My advice would be to watch this space.