The Beijing L.G.B.T. Center said in a post, “We are all gay tonight,” alongside photographs of young men and women. While some posts were censored, the hashtag that translates to #Iamgaynotapervert was viewed more than 1.35 million times.
Many activists had harsh words for Sina Weibo, saying that its attempts to limit free speech had gone too far and that gay people were being punished because their culture was considered out of the mainstream.
“Our whole group went ballistic,” said Zhong Xinyue, 22, an intern at the Canton Rainbow Group, an advocacy organization in the southern city of Guangzhou. She lamented the loss of a popular Weibo account called the Gay Voice, which was deleted on Saturday.
Even the state-run newspaper The People’s Daily published an article online that included veiled criticism of Weibo’s announcement. The article said that being gay or bisexual was “not a disease,” but it added that gay people needed to “take on their own social responsibilities while advocating their rights.”
Although homosexuality is no longer a crime in China, a conservative culture persists that looks down on people in same-sex relationships. Some textbooks still describe homosexuality as a psychological disorder, and gay characters are rarely shown in movies or on television.
Ma Baoli, the founder of Blued, a popular gay dating app, said the country’s lack of sexual education had exacerbated a culture of intolerance.
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“It’s easy to aggravate the public’s discrimination against sexual minorities,” said Mr. Ma, referring to Weibo’s announcement.
Many activists say they are concerned that Mr. Xi’s tightening grip on the internet will dampen a thriving online culture that they say binds the gay community together.
Chen Du, a gay activist in Guangzhou, said Weibo’s campaign would hurt the image of gay people in China and make it more difficult for young people to come out.
“People who are ready to come out are going to be pushed back to where they used to be, faced with pressure and helplessness,” he said.
Under Mr. Xi, internet companies have faced pressure to eliminate content that the government deems unwholesome or pornographic — not just politically sensitive — harking back to the days when the Communist Party was an arbiter of public morality.
Mr. Xi put in place a stricter cybersecurity law last year that has given the state more power to punish and investigate companies that publish content the government labels unsafe or offensive.
This past week, China’s top media regulator ordered Bytedance, a prominent Chinese technology start-up, to shut down an app for sharing jokes and videos, saying it had helped spread vulgar content.