A new pro-LGBT advert from e-commerce giant Alibaba has defied Chinese media convention and law by depicting a gay couple returning home for the Lunar New Year. The advert, which shows a young man introducing his partner “Kelvin” to his mother, received instant praise from LGBT activists on Weibo for its support of the community.
In 2017, the company also flew ten same-sex Chinese couples out to Los Angeles to get married as part of a competition called ‘We Do’, but this liberal turn feels radically out of step with the government in a country where state and business are usually joined at the hip.
It is exceptionally rare to see depictions of same-sex couples in Chinese media and entertainment. The government strongly discourages it, and it is almost always censored. Many will remember the infamous decision to show Bohemian Rhapsody in March last year without any scenes or mentions of homosexuality. Unsurprisingly, it made for a fairly dull film.
While homosexuality is far from mainstream acceptance in China, public tolerance has been slowly growing. Homosexuality was officially decriminalised in 1997 after decades of persecution (which reached a fever pitch during the Cultural Revolution.) But even as late as 2001 it was classified as a mental disorder.
Yet as tolerance grows amongst the public, the government has been wary. In March last year, the Chinese government told the UN it planned to draft a law against LGBT discrimination. But this landmark news received no coverage in China. There has been no official news or discussion since.
While vibrant LGBT scenes now exist in major cities, conversion therapy is still commonplace and homosexuality is heavily stigmatised in rural parts of the country. According to the Beijing LGBT centre, only 5% of those who privately identify as gay have come out.
Activists have nonetheless begun to mobilise. Taiwan’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage last year galvanised LGBT groups into asking why such a right is denied in China. After all, the Communist Party insists Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic.
In this context Alibaba’s open show of support for the gay community feels significant. It is a Chinese giant with global ambitions and sees itself growing into Amazon’s first genuine competitor in the West. If Alibaba’s advert survives the censors, it could be a powerful statement of a more progressive China struggling to be born.