Society

China's New Crackdown Against LGBTQ Activists At Universities

Reports have come in from LGBTQ activists around the country that the government has shut down the organizations pages on WeChat, the top Chinese platform.

A LGBTQ home party in Beijing, China
A LGBTQ home party in Beijing, China

SHANGHAI — On July 6th, when the day was finishing for most Chinese university students, a pop-up notification began to appear on the phones of certain campus LGBTQ activists: "The Wechat account that you are managing is permanently blocked."

He Zhang is the founder of Z Society, a Shanghai-based student academic hub that focuses on gender issues, with more than 70,000 followers on its official account. Suddenly, the page was all blank. " I knew this day would come sooner or later, but I never thought it was going to be so soon."

About 20 influential official accounts that focus on LGBTQ, feminism and gender issues were blocked that night, precisely at 9:53 p.m. All their past articles are gone, back pages were completely blank, and even their names were all turned into "unnamed official account." Tencent, the company that runs Wechat, did not offer any explanations on the ban, and the students in charge of the accounts had no way to appeal. China's Foreign Office responded to related inquiries on July 8 with a single dry sentence: "We manage the internet by the law."

It's notable that in July 2020, the Chinese delegation spoke at the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of violent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, stating that "China opposes all forms of discrimination and violence." Still, LGBTQ-themed films, television dramas, speech, and activist movements have been repeatedly suppressed, and student organizations, which are officially considered difficult to control, have been subjected to increasingly harsh conditions.

They are convinced that everything is done by foreign forces.

Blocking the official accounts was not the first move. In May, LGBTQ and feminism campus communities were questioned by their home universities. Each event organized by these communities has been a test of the limits for the ever-tightening space. Students were interviewed by the school several times, pressured by teachers who tried to figure out "the foreign forces' behind the communities.

"They never believed that there is a group of audience out there for our society," said one student activist. "They are convinced that everything is done by foreign forces."

According to observers, the shutdown is related to controlling the influence of minority groups by the administration. As social media creates space for free discussion and could even influence public opinion, especially among the young, the government instinctively moves to control and supervise. "The government is actively increasing its monitoring efforts to prevent any unstable factors," noted another activist. "It's especially true this year, which is the centenary anniversary for the founding of the Communist Party of China."

Universities used to be a relatively tolerant environment for discussion in China, especially for spreading ideas of gender equality and providing a sense of community for sexual minorities. But as the government continues to tighten controls, Wechat official accounts had become the "last stand" to voice such ideas. Now, this small haven too looks to also have been completely erased. "It's pretty desperate," said He Zhang, "One by one, things like this are getting worse, and it feels like it's futile to make any effort, and you don't even need any reason to be banned."

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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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