A fast-changing world: China’s crackdown on ‘sissy’ men

A fast-changing world: China’s crackdown on ‘sissy’ men

In the West, gender identities have become more fluid in recent years. By contrast, in China, the government has taken steps to ensure traditional gender stereotypes are more strictly enforced. From promoting conventional images of masculinity to cracking down on online feminist groups, China’s leadership is keen to promote a traditional view of gender to fulfil its goals.


China wants to promote ‘correct aesthetics’

Towards the end of 2021, the Chinese government took action against what it termed ‘sissy men’ – that is, men, often celebrities, deemed too effeminate. This action included banning the appearance of ‘niang pao’ – a derogatory term meaning literally, ‘girlie guns’ – on both television and video streaming sites, calling for their replacement with “China’s excellent traditional, revolutionary, and socialist culture”.

Media organisations were told to “strictly grasp the selection of actors and guests, performance style, costumes and makeup” and establish “the correct aesthetics”. According to an editorial published in the state-owned newspaper Guangming Daily, the patriotic heroes and ‘wolf warriors’ on Chinese TV screens were ideal examples of male aesthetics. “This is what China’s young people should look like,” the editorial opined.

The Cyberspace Administration of China ordered its local branches to create a watchlist for celebrities who promote undesirable values, prompting Chinese idols to adopt more “masculine looks”. Technically, these were guidelines rather than laws. But because the Chinese government exerts strong control over the tech industry, companies that provide celebrities with a platform were quick to fall in line.

China’s Ministry of Education got involved too, laying out plans to develop masculinity in young men through a combination of initiatives including revamping physical education classes and increasing the number of male teachers to prevent the “feminisation of males and adolescents”.


Background to the ‘sissy’ crackdown

Men’s fashion has changed significantly in China since the Mao era when a military uniform in olive green was all the rage. Back then, glamorous makeup or blingy jewellery would have been labelled bourgeoisie, regardless of gender.

Up until about 2010, the Chinese government had a tight grip on who could star on TV and the kind of stories that could be told. After 2010, TV dramas, films and talent shows produced by private tech companies became more popular, while ratings and ad revenues of state-owned television stations declined.

At the same time, South Korean dramas and K-pop — which can feature more feminine or androgynous looking men — have become an increasingly dominant influence on Chinese pop culture. For example, in Chinese tech giant Tencent’s popular talent show Produce Camp, participants competed to be selected for an 11-member boy band, dressing in unisex clothing, wearing makeup, and presenting a softer version of masculinity. The show’s slogan, whose format was imported from South Korea, was “redefine male aesthetics”.

In 2016, the government started to censor web videos with the same criteria it had been using for television. However, the restrictions seemed to inspire more creative and subversive expressions of sexuality on video streaming sites. For example, images of two men kissing and holding hands were banned. So creators simply used dialogue and gestures, like intense eye contact, to convey gay intimacy. Furthermore, these rules did not regulate the physical appearance of characters.

With so many widely acclaimed drama series and talent shows produced by non-state owned tech and media companies, at the expense of state-owned media, the government felt its influence weaken.

The crackdown on effeminate men seems mainly intended as propaganda – to send a strong signal to society to shape the overall discourse, rather than a rigid policy to be implemented. That said, there have been real world consequences: last year, Tencent deleted dozens of LGBTQ accounts run by university students from its WeChat social media platform, whilst comments in favour of the shutdowns were allowed to be posted without hindrance.


Feminists are also targeted

China’s crackdown coincides with attempts to redirect femininity to more conservative functions. Since the advent of #MeToo in 2018, clamping down on feminist voices has been a strategic objective for the Chinese Communist Party. Examples include:

  • The abrupt closure of feminist accounts accused of spreading “illegal and harmful information.”
  • Online censorship of women who publicly vow not to have children on social media.
  • The clumsy cover-up of sexual assault allegations by the tennis star Peng Shuai. When Peng Shuai said on social media that a top Chinese leader had pressured her into sex, she was censored within minutes, with fears for her subsequent wellbeing.
  • Prosecutors dropping charges against an Alibaba Group employee accused of rape, releasing him after serving the maximum 15 days for a lesser charge of indecency.

The Global Times, a CCP-owned tabloid, has previously denounced “spooky feminism” and derided the “so-called MeToo movement” as a Western cudgel against China.


What is the motivation for these crackdowns?

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he has called for a ‘national rejuvenation’, with tighter CCP control of business, education, culture, and religion. Businesses and the public are under pressure to align with the CCP’s vision of a more powerful China. The moves to reinforce traditional gender roles can be viewed as part of a broader desire to turn the clock back to a simpler and purer socialist era, away from what the CCP perceives as the negative cultural influences of the West.

The CCP fears that LQBTQ and feminist movements are driven by civil groups that operate outside of the government’s control. Often, they are characterised as being agents of foreign influence, one of the most severe criticisms that can be inflicted in Xi’s China, and reminiscent of the first Cultural Revolution waged under Mao where capitalists and opponents of all stripes were weeded out.

There’s an economic element as well: decades of family planning culminating in the enforcement of the one-child policy have resulted in a looming demographic crisis that threatens disastrous consequences for the country’s long-term economic growth. An increasing number of young women are choosing to remain single and not get married.

According to a recent UN report, China’s population growth has collapsed by 94%, from 8 million per year a decade ago to just 480,000 last year. Previously projected figures suggested that by the year 2100, China’s 15- to 64-year old population would be 579 million. This has now been revised downwards to 378 million. If this plays out, the economic consequences for China will be significant. Today, every 100 working age Chinese need to support 20 retirees. If current trends continue, by the turn of the century, every 100 workers will need to support 120 retirees.

As a result, couples are now allowed to have up to three children and those leading the country urge women to have more children. Women have been pushed out of the workplace and there are fears that efforts to encourage childbirth could turn coercive. Despite this, many women are choosing not to have children, because of rising living costs and the risk of jeopardising career prospects.

Current demographic trends hinder the trajectory of China’s economic development. In turn, the CCP’s legitimacy is linked to the country’s economic performance. It’s against this background that the CCP urges Chinese people to “to integrate their personal and family dreams with the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”, and encourages conformity with traditional societal functions performed by men and women in the pursuit of national prosperity.


The tech industry is facing tighter control

Xi’s government has also tightened control over Chinese internet industries. It has launched anti-monopoly, data security and other enforcement actions at companies such as games and social media provider Tencent Holdings and e-commerce giant Alibaba Group amid fears that they have grown too big and too fast and take up such an important role in people’s daily lives that they threaten the power of the CCP.

Game developers are required to submit new titles for government approval before they can be released. Officials have called on them to add nationalistic themes. To curtail what it sees as chaotic celebrity culture, the Cyberspace Administration of China proposes limits on recommendation engines and referral algorithms used by games, streaming and social media companies.

Chinese authorities have introduced limits on how much time young people can spend playing online games, what times of day they can play, how much they can spend on microtransactions, as well as requiring players to use their real names to ensure compliance with the rules.

These two trends – the moralistic stance against non-socialist behaviour and the crackdown on the tech sector – are coalescing and having an impact on China’s top entertainment and tech players – which are some of the largest gaming and streaming companies in the world.


So what now?

For the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China – 1949 to 1978 – homosexuality was portrayed as the epitome of capitalist vice and therefore incompatible with the values of the Communist state.

After China’s market reforms in 1978, the country started to open up and people – especially in metropolitan areas – became more comfortable identifying themselves as gay. In 1997, China decriminalised homosexuality and in 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, calling it “not necessarily abnormal”.

In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the state-run Xinhua News agency published articles championing the gay website Danlan – a precursor to Blued, a Chinese equivalent to Grindr – to portray China as an inclusive and diverse place and to deflect international criticism of China’s record on human rights.

Thanks to digital technology and the growth of online subcultures, acceptance of gender and sexual minorities grew. Young women spoke of having a “gay confidant” (gaymi), while young straight men called their male friends “good gay buddies”(hao jiyou). Gay clubs flourished in big cities – Destination in Beijing opened in 2004 and is one of the biggest LGBTQ clubs in Asia – and community groups sprang up to offer social services.

More recently, however, there has been a perception that it has become tougher to be gay in China – because of the broader push by Xi Jinping to shape a more conservative, conformist China. Some in China see LGBTQ identities as an imported Western concept. However, attitudes depend on where you live and how old you are. The country’s most populous cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, tend to be more progressive. As in other countries, younger people tend to be more comfortable discussing their sexuality. But in the conservative heartland – home to most of China’s 1.4 billion people – it remains the norm for gay men and women to bow to family pressure to marry someone of the opposite sex and have children, keeping their true sexual orientation secret.  Same-sex marriage remains illegal.

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