China Declares a Culture War on Androgyny

Officials look for scapegoats to blame as the working force suffers burnout.


China's latest round of authoritarian fearmongering isn't just targeting gamers. The government is going after celebrity culture and in particular young men they deem to be too effeminate.

The Associated Press reports:

China's government banned effeminate men on TV and told broadcasters Thursday to promote "revolutionary culture," broadening a campaign to tighten control over business and society and enforce official morality.

Broadcasters must "resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics," the TV regulator said, using an insulting slang term for effeminate men—"niang pao," or literally, "girlie guns."

The Wall Street Journal notes that this, like the video game restrictions, is part of cultural obsession with the masculine aesthetics that is common under authoritarian regimes, from the Soviet left to the fascist right. This often involves attempts purge anything that doesn't fit those narrow gender roles.

China has historically had a complicated relationship with gay and trans issues. LGBT folks have historically been prosecuted there as mentally ill undesirables, but the government eventually started to ease up. China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, and in 2001 removed it from their official list of mental disorders.

Subsequent polling shows that Chinese citizens, like their counterparts across much of the world, were becoming more and more comfortable with LGBT folks. Soon Shanghai was having gay pride marches and officially recognized gay bars.

But as Brian Wong recently reported in SupChina, the past five years have seen a backlash. The pride march has been canceled (though most were last year, due to COVID). Movies with LGBT gay themes are often censored or outright banned. Shanghai University is making a list of students who publicly identify as LGBT, and activists aren't sure why. Earlier in July, the government ordered the Tencent-owned messaging app WeChat to delete accounts connected to LGBT groups.

China's leadership certainly seems to be setting up LGBT folks and "non-masculine" men as social scapegoats. These moves may also be an indication that the younger generation is not on board with the Chinese government's goals, and that leaders are struggling to rein them in. Working-age adults are starting to rebel against the heavy workloads being demanded to maintain a population that is growing older. A cultural movement called "lying flat" has developed, where young adults are rejecting long work schedules and living simpler lives in defiance of the ruling party's pressures.

In that context, these new commandments seem to blames video games, entertainment, and androgyny for making men "soft" when a lot of them are just burned out. Pointing a finger at China's version of Drag Queen Story Hour is a dodge—a way to redirect attention away from a top-heavy and corrupt regime that is far from the socialist fantasy where the government provides for its citizens.

If you want to grasp what's really behind this suddenly blaming of video games and androgyny in China, read this piece in The Christian Science Monitor that describes what these "lying flat" workers are actually feeling:

Official data show China's economic output per person doubled over the past decade, but many complain the gains went mostly to a handful of tycoons and state-owned companies. Professionals say their incomes are failing to keep up with soaring housing, child care, and other costs….

Thousands vented frustration online after the Communist Party's announcement in May that official birth limits would be eased to allow all couples to have three children instead of two. The party has enforced birth restrictions since 1980 to restrain population growth but worries China, with economic output per person still below the global average, needs more young workers.

Minutes after the announcement, websites were flooded with complaints that the move did nothing to help parents cope with child care costs, long work hours, cramped housing, job discrimination against mothers, and a need to look after elderly parents.

If China's response to these frustrations seems tone-deaf, remember: This is a country that tried to ban all representations of Winnie the Pooh to protect President Xi Jinping's ego, just because people had been mocking him by saying he looked like the bear. Is it really young people who are "soft" and "weak" here?