China Targets ‘Effeminate’ Men in Xi’s Mounting Push for Conformity

China Targets ‘Effeminate’ Men in Xi’s Mounting Push for Conformity

In a low-cut midriff top, butt-hugging pants and a bold red lip, Beijing photographer Alain would be hard to miss even in the most crowded party. People stare, he said, and he loves it: “It’s totally a rebellion against conservative culture.” 

That, for President Xi Jinping’s Communist Party, is the problem. Earlier this month, regulators explicitly targeted androgynous pop idols and anyone who, like Alain, doesn’t conform to Chinese gender norms, using a derogatory slur to warn media companies off men who express a more feminine style. 

The National Radio and Television Administration used the word “niangpao,” which roughly translates to “sissy men,” in guidance to TV companies, telling them to “strictly control the selection of program actors and guests.” It’s the first time the government used the term, which is often used to insult or bully gay men, in official communication. Last week, the same body called for boycotting “fan culture” in general and gay male love stories in particular. 

“This can’t be good for society,” said Alain, who asked to use his English name as he didn’t want to be identified discussing politically sensitive issues. “Some friends of mine are very angry -- some want to make up their faces more extremely every day now to fight these limits.” 

Beijing has pushed conservative ideas about gender before, including a 2016 ban on entertainment with gay themes and a 2018 attack by some state media on effeminate men in popular culture. The new regulations are also directed at pop stars and TV personalities, but observers see a redoubling of Beijing’s efforts to narrowly define what -- and who -- is acceptable in China today. 

The current campaign appears to be more sustained and coordinated, said Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University. It’s also linked to Xi’s broader “common prosperity” initiative, which aims to reduce economic inequality and, increasingly, extends to efforts to wipe out other kinds of difference. 

“The party regards the increasing inequality as potentially a real source of social disturbance,” Mitter said. “Part of the same mindset is the idea that any conspicuous difference in terms of society also needs to be removed, smoothed out, or covered over as much as possible.” 

In recent years that’s also included suppression of Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the promotion of Mandarin as the official language and resurrection of Confucian values. The Party is also pushing for families to have more children, an effort to reverse the disastrous effects of the decades-long one-child policy. 

The criticisms of gender non-conforming men can also be seen as a continuation of the actions against China’s big tech companies, said Shuaishuai Wang, a lecturer in new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam. 

“Video streaming sites owned by these tech giants are the main force of this ‘sissy’ cultural trend,” said Wang. “Gender and sexual issues can draw mass attention, and it’s a safe target for regulators.” 

The rules will have effects for companies across the entertainment and fashion industries, in addition to beauty, makeup and cosmetic surgery, itself seen as a target for regulatory control. 

Though the rules don’t mention sexual orientation specifically, the use of a slur in official communication set off alarm bells for the LGBTQ community, which had been thriving, albeit unofficially. Three years ago, the official WeChat account of People’s Daily published a commentary denouncing “such derogatory phrases including ‘niangpao,’” and called for respect and tolerance of diversified aesthetics.

Regulators and censors now seem to be paying closer attention. This summer, WeChat shut accounts for LGBTQ associations at top universities including Tsinghua and Peking, saying they violated unspecified rules. A Sept. 2 commentary in the People’s Daily echoed the government’s slur and celebrating that such people will no longer have opportunity to “swagger” in cyber space.

A 27-year-old gay man in Guangzhou who calls himself Coco said hearing the term from the government reminded him of being bullied as a teenager for what he described as his “rather feminine look.” 

“It’s really painful,” Coco said, asking to use his nickname to avoid retribution for commenting on government policies. “Today it’s LGBT people, men with effeminate looks,” he said. “Tomorrow the target could be people who don’t have children. Everyone can be a minority in one way or another. No one is safe.”

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With assistance from Bloomberg