Sam Gaskin
Aug 20, 2015

How Chinese brands are bypassing politicians on gay culture

Tech brands that target younger, urban consumers are leading the way.

Sam Gaskin
Sam Gaskin

Gay marriage isn’t legal in China, but the Chinese Internet celebrated the US gay marriage ruling as if it were a local victory.

Chinese social media went prismatic on June 26 when the United States became the 21st country in the world to legalise gay marriage. Several Chinese brands—almost all of them tech companies of some description—joined the celebrations, sharing rainbow coloured logos and pictures of their product ranges on Weibo, twitter and their own websites and apps.

Beijing only decriminalised homosexuality in 1997 and stopped classifying it as a mental illness in 2011, but there seems to be widespread popular support for gay marriage in China. In 2014, a survey by the Chinese Journal of Human Sexuality found that 85 percent of almost 1,000 respondents supported same-sex marriage, with only 2 percent opposed.

Yet these responses, given anonymously and applied to an abstract right, belie more complex attitudes to homosexuality here. State newspaper The Global Times tied itself in knots trying to make sense of the decision. “Society needs to show increasing tolerance for gay marriage,” they wrote, “but it’s unnecessary to hype it up to induce potential homosexuals.”

Gay marriage is not an investment offering in danger of destabilising society due to sexuality speculation. Nor is it a potential extinction event, despite the editorial’s apocalyptic fantasies: “We should send our best wishes to the homosexuals but meanwhile hope that some traditions of human beings will continue.”

Funny as they are, The Global Times’ comments hint at one of the most common objections to gay marriage in China. Gay and lesbian Chinese often say the reason they choose not to come out of the closet is their parents’ desires that they marry and have children, turning parents into grandparents and continuing the family line.

Ah Qiang, director of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) China, estimates 60 percent of gay people in China’s big cities and 90 percent in rural areas are marrying people of the opposite sex in order to satisfy the demands of their parents, despite the harms that can result from such deceptions.

That regional difference is telling. The brands that celebrated the US gay marriage ruling—including online retailers Taobao and Tmall, taxi apps Dididache and Yongche, and electronics companies Lenovo, HTC, Meizi, Xiaomi and Haier—are much more likely to be talking to a younger generation of educated city dwellers, especially in their digital communications.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Support from these companies isn’t equal.

Brands were showing the rainbow of colours their products are available in long before the US gay marriage ruling, and such posts are as interested in moving product as they are in changing hearts and minds. A smarter, more substantive effort was made back in February by Taobao and bedding company Bliss who ran a competition to fly 10 Chinese same-sex couples to California to get married. Four hundred videos about their relationships were submitted by couples hoping to win the prize, and the competition received over a million views.

Chinese Brands may be further emboldened to support gay and lesbian relationships after a notable absence of finger wagging from the government and even some support for the cause published in state media.

Sam Gaskin is content editor at Flamingo Shanghai


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