Closure of LGBT NGO Signals Disappearing Civic Space in China

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Closure of LGBT NGO Signals Disappearing Civic Space in China

CHRD is alarmed at the forced closure of the Beijing LGBT Center under pressure from the Chinese government. Shutting down China’s longest established LGBTIQ+ organization signals yet another worsening turn in the Chinese state’s years-long campaign against civil society.  We urge the Chinese government to take seriously its human rights obligations under international law to eliminate discrimination against LGBTIQ+ individuals and protect NGOs working to promote LGBTIQ+ rights in China.

On May 15, Beijing LGBT Center sent out a WeChat post announcing that “We very unfortunately are informing everyone that due to an inability to resist [pressure], Beijing LGBT Center is ceasing operations today.”  

Members of the Center told Deutsche Welle that they were frequently questioned and harassed by the police, or asked to euphemistically “drink tea” with them. At the same time, on multiple occasions authorities tried to dissuade the Center from ceasing operations for fear of the international repercussions. This put the Beijing LGBT Center in a difficult position where they found it impossible to do their work but also were forced by authorities to maintain the appearance of being in operation until now.

Members of the LGBTIQ+ community have faced growing restrictions on their rights and advocacy in recent years. CHRD has learned from a Chinese civil society expert that another NGO, EnGender, ceased operations in May due to an increasingly difficult operating environment. In November 2021, LGBT Rights Advocacy China, an NGO with operations nationwide, was forced to shut down due to government pressure. On July 6, 2021, nearly 20 WeChat accounts of university students’ LGBT and gender studies groups were suddenly closed down.  

Beijing LGBT Center, founded in 2008, provided much of the research and data for understanding the social obstacles and stigma against LGBTIQ+ people in China. For example, in 2016, it produced the largest survey ever done on sexual and gender diversity issues in China, Being LGBT in China – A National Survey on Social Attitudes towards Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression, which was co-authored by Beijing University Sociology Department with support from the UN Development Programme. In 2017, also in collaboration with Beijing University Sociology Department and with support from the Dutch embassy, it produced the 2017 Chinese Transgender Population General Survey. In 2018, Beijing LGBT Center created a national hotline for suicide prevention for transgender people. A member from the Center also conducted a survey that found that transgender people faced domestic violence after telling their parents about their transgender status.

Beijing LGBT Center aspired to serve as a safe space for people in the LGBTIQ+ community in Beijing and around the country. The organization frequently hosted events speaking out on LGBTIQ+ issues. It provided resources to members in the community, such as offering health care counselling on resisting being pressured into “conversion therapy,” which is still prevalent in China. In 2020, it held a workshop at Beijing Normal University for 100 graduate students majoring in psychological counselling to help them better understand the needs of the LGBTIQ+ community. 

Disregard for China’s International Human Rights Obligations

The intensified pressure on Beijing LGBT Center leading to its closure occurred just two days before this year’s International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk marked the day by noting that “[t]he human rights of all LGBTIQ+ people, as equal members of the human family, must be respected,” but that “…in many countries LGBTIQ+ people are facing unacceptable pushbacks to their rights.” To this end, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) launched a new thematic campaign on solidarity within its Free & Equal campaign, which aims to engage with “the public and policymakers to advance social acceptance and positive changes in laws and policies.”

Chinese government harassment of LGBT NGOs goes against UN independent experts’ recent recommendations to the state to combat discrimination against LGBTIQ+ persons. In March 2023, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) released its findings in the latest review of China’s treaty obligations, urging the government to: 

“(a)dopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislative, political and administrative measures prohibiting direct, indirect and multiple discrimination, including explicitly prohibiting discrimination and criminalizing harassment, hate speech and hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons in accordance with article 2 (2) of the Covenant…; [and] (i)ntensify its efforts to combat discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, including by conducting public awareness-raising campaigns.” 

During the current review by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, independent experts on the Committee asked about “how the State party responded to the need for protection of… lesbian, bisexual and transgender women and intersex persons, and other groups facing multiple forms of discrimination.” An official on the Chinese government delegation responded by saying that the Chinese Constitution does not discriminate against LBGTIQ+ people, and it views them as “ordinary people,” thus there are no special legal protections for LGBTIQ+ citizens.

Our “asks”

In light of these alarming developments, which are detrimental to combating discrimination against the LGBTIQ+ community in China, CHRD strongly urges the Chinese government to immediately end its campaign of harassment and intimidation against LGBTIQ+ rights NGOs and heed the calls of UN experts to take specific measure to combat discrimination against this community.  The government should cooperate with UN bodies, particularly the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity to protect LGBTIQ+ rights and increase social inclusion.

CHRD recommends that the OHCHR incorporate the issue of the shrinking advocacy space for LGBTIQ+ rights in China into its Free & Equal campaign. The Chinese government should be highlighted as a country moving backwards on LGBTIQ+ rights. The High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk should speak out and raise serious concerns about the recent closure of Beijing LGBT Center in communications with the Chinese government and in public messaging on LGBTIQ+ rights globally. 

The UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity should publicly condemn the closure of the Beijing LGBT Center and the other alarming developments, and urge the Chinese government to enact strategies, policies, and laws to advance LGBTIQ+ rights.

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