THE PROMOTION OF the China Dream has had an increasingly visible, ambiguous, and complex impact on LGBTQ-related public discourse in China, and on the LGBTQ community itself. This was especially evident in 2019, when elsewhere in the Chinese-speaking world there were significant breakthroughs regarding both legal and political rights for LGBTQ people. On 17 May 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. On 30 May, the Hong Kong High Court overturned four laws that criminalised behaviour (such as anal sex) that was illegal only when carried out by gay men; it also revised three other laws.1 This progression of LGBTQ legal rights has enhanced the global reputation of both places for their sociocultural openness. In mainland China, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997 and depathologised in 2001. While a realisation of mainland China’s own ‘queer dreams’ would help to promote a ‘positive and inclusive discourse’ domestically and benefit its global soft power,2 throughout the 2010s, the Party-state was ambivalent in both rhetoric and action.

2019 Taiwan Pride Parade
Source: Ben Hillman

The Party-state’s approach to including LGBTQ within the China Dream combines nationalism, China-centrism, cosmopolitanism, and neo-liberalism. For instance, on 18 May 2019, in an English post on Twitter (which has been blocked in mainland China since 2009), the party newspaper People’s Daily celebrated Taiwan’s move towards LGBTQ rights with a ‘Love Is Love’ GIF.3 At the same time, it attributed the decision to ‘local lawmakers in Taiwan, China’, subtly ‘owning’ legislation that applied only to same-sex couples in Taiwan, while asserting Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over the island.4 This was not the first time the People’s Daily had attempted to elevate China’s global status and promote national unity by alluding to LGBTQ rights. Back in April 2018, the online People’s Daily’s ‘Strong Nation Forum’ published a commentary that criticised Weibo’s censorship of homosexual content.5 However, the commentary — while implicitly depicting China as a socioculturally inclusive and diverse nation — also explicitly urged LGBTQ people to be well-behaved, socially responsible citizens.6 These sorts of official statements, circulated on both local and foreign social media, appear to be aimed more at bolstering China’s sociopolitical harmony than defending LGBTQ rights.

A major advance in LGBTQ rights in mainland China in recent years is the extension of officially notarised guardianship agreements to same-sex couples. China’s new legal guardianship system, in which ‘all adults of full capacity are given the liberty of appointing their own guardians by mutual agreement’, was amended by the National People’s Congress in March 2017.7 This was followed by the approval of same-sex guardianship by the Notary Office of Nanjing in late 2017 and then by the notary offices of Changsha, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xiangyang, and Beijing in August 2019.8 While the Party-state has no intention of legalising same-sex marriage, the notarisation can be understood as part of the government’s commitment, given in March 2019, to comply with the UN Human Rights Council’s five anti-discrimination recommendations on LGBT+ issues.9

Since 2015, various LGBTQ communities in Shanghai have staged annual film events — the ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival (ShPFF), CINEMAQ, and Shanghai Queer Film Festival — despite media censorship of homosexual content deemed to be promoting ‘vulgar’ or ‘abnormal’ content.10 In the case of the ShPFF, collaboration with foreign consulates enabled it to evade censorship.11

According to Bloomberg, there exists a US$300 billion ‘rainbow economy’ for LGBTQ merchandise in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu, as well as in Chinese cyberspace.12 There has even been a burgeoning ‘glocalised’ drag ball culture in Shanghai since the middle of the past decade.13

This surge and celebration of LGBTQ consumerism and culture coexist uneasily with the government’s smothering of agitation for greater gender and sexual equality, which challenges China’s hetero-patriarchal sociopolitical system and traditions of sexual morality.14 The Party-state clamps down on displays of rainbow signs or queer activist slogans in the mass media as well as on online shopping sites, and censors explicit scenes of homosexuality in imported movies (such as Bohemian Rhapsody), as well as feminist social media accounts and hashtags, such as #MeToo.15

This set of mixed policies allows politically innocuous LGBTQ-centred media and popular cultures to exist, and helps to promote a seemingly open-minded image to audiences both at home and abroad, while keeping more serious debates on human rights out of the public space.16 By managing ‘queer dreams’, the Party-state effectively neutralises the potential of these dreams to transform society while turning them into useful elements in China’s self-portrayal as a great modern nation on the global stage.



See Chris Lau, ‘Victory for Hong Kong’s LGBT community as High Court abolishes four offences that criminalise sex between men’, South China Morning Post, 30 May 2019, online at: Nevertheless, on 18 October 2019, a Hong Kong court banned a same-sex union petition made for two female Hong Kong permanent residents. See Tiffany May and Gerry Mullany, ‘Hong Kong court rules against same-sex unions’, The New York Times, 18 October 2019, online at:


Viola Sarnelli, ‘CCTV News and China’s cultural policy presented to a global audience’, in Paola Voci and Luo Hui eds, Screening China’s Soft Power, London: Routledge, 2018, p.92.


Qin Chen, ‘Taiwan legalized gay marriage, and mainland China is all over it’, Inkstone News, 21 May 2019, online at:


See Jamie J. Zhao, ‘Censoring “rainbow” in China’, Asia Dialogue, 1 June 2018, online at:




Jiayun Feng, ‘Same-sex couples in mainland China are naming their partners as legal guardians’, SupChina, 6 August 2019, online at:; and Katrin Büchenbacher, ‘LGBT couples in China file for voluntary guardianship’, CGTN, 11 August 2019, online at:


Ibid.; and Xu Chen and Wilfred Wang, ‘How China is legally recognising same-sex couples, but not empowering them’, The Conversation, 2 October 2019, online at:


Kyle Mullin, ‘China’s acceptance of UN’s LGBT recommendations prompts cautious optimism’, The Beijinger, 1 April 2019, online at:–cautious-optimism; and Chen and Wang, ‘How China is legally recognising same-sex couples’.


The Shanghai Queer Film Festival was started in September 2017. See Rebecca Davis, ‘How the ShanghaiPRIDE Festival is coming out of SIFF’s shadow’, Variety, 22 June 2019, online at: For China’s censoring of homosexual content in the media, see Lianrui Jia and Tianyang Zhou, ‘Regulation of homosexuality in the Chinese media scene’, Asia Dialogue, 28 July 2015, online at:




See, ‘A $300 billion rainbow economy is booming in the middle of China’, Bloomberg News, 19 June 2019, online at:; and Ralph Jennings, ‘LGBTs in China are priming a pink economy that will overtake America’s’, Forbes, 22 June 2017, online at:


VICE Staff, ‘The queens living it up in China’s thriving drag scene’, VICE, 6 June 2018, online at:


See, Chen and Wang, ‘How China is legally recognising same-sex couples’; and Zhao, ‘Censoring “rainbow” in China’.


James Griffiths, ‘Can you be gay online in China? Social media companies aren’t sure’, CNN Business, 17 April 2019, online at: