This article was originally published in WAGIC: Women and Gender in China on 29 January 2018 as the introduction to a series of events celebrating the 2018 LGBT History Month at the University of Nottingham. https://www.wagic.org/blank-2/2018/01/29/Fear-of-A-Queer-China
The title of the research workshop ‘Fear of A Queer China’, to be held at the University of Nottingham on 5-6 February 2018, is a deliberate appropriation of a book title Fear of A Queer Planet, a collection of essays on queer politics and social theory edited by Michael Warner in 1993. We use the title both to acknowledge our intellectual debt to queer theory and our critical engagement with it.
Written at a critical historical juncture marked by a conservative social order in the Reagan-Bush-era America, the haunting memory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the queer community, and increasing dissatisfaction with identity politics, Warner’s book places sexuality at the centre of social theory. More than two decades have passed. In retrospect, the book marked an important moment in queer social theory and has made important contributions to how we understand queer theory and imagine queer politics today.
Fear of A Queer Planet articulates a radical queer politics that is later labelled as ‘anti-normative’ or ‘anti-social’ politics. ‘Queer’, for Warner, ‘rejects a minoritising logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favour of a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal’. Following Hannah Arendt, Warner even proclaims: ‘queer politics opposes society itself’. ‘Society’, for Warner, is imagined as heteronormative and full of constraining norms that stand in the way of queer existence. Queer should stand in direct opposition to social norms, however defined, and refuse to compromise, collaborate or ‘find a middle way’. This type of radical theorisation proves to be productive in certain historical moments; but it also has a lot of constraints. It is culturally insensitive and context unspecific. It imagines an individual type of subjectivity that can break away from traditional forms of family, kinship and social organisations. This is not possible in many parts of the world. Despite its controversy, this type of queer theorisation has sedimented a hegemonic form of queer subjectivity and politics that is anarchistic, militant and antagonistic. The transnational impact of this type of politics will only be known in the course of history.
This brings us to the particular version of queer politics, a radical, antagonist, anarchist and anti-social politics that Warner and others imagine. Is the ‘anti-social’ queer politics the only or the best form of queer politics? What about cultural differences as well as national and transnational contexts? Yau Ching’s 2010 book As Normal As Possible and Elisabeth Engebretsen’s 2014 book Queer Women in Urban China have highlighted the complex relationship between queer and normativity in a transnational Chinese context: Chinese queers seem to desire social recognition and refuse to be incorporated by social institutions and family values at the same time. Following Warner’s question ‘what do queers want?’, we might want to ask: ‘what do Chinese queers want?’ The answer, if possible at all, is not always a straightforward one.
Although ‘fear’ is a keyword in Warner’s book, the term is not explained in the book. Readers are constantly puzzled, and at the same time fascinated, by the word ‘fear’. The word conjures up a chain of questions: Whose fear? Fear of what? What does it mean to have fear? What engenders fear? Can one explain and analyse fear rationally? Can fear constitute effective politics? … I take Sara Ahmed’s point in The Culture Politics of Emotion that fear is political and that emotions can be mobilised to articulate politics. It is less certain how this can be done in terms of queer politics. We need to reflect on the politics of fear and unravel its radical political potential.
Fears often have sources, although they can be extremely difficult to pin down and to rationalise. Different chapters of Warner’s book were written in the shadow and the immediate aftermath of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, through which the American queer community was effectively mobilised. The politics of fear, mourning and community care underpinned the queer subject formation in the United States in the 1980s and 90s. This also engendered a militant type of queer politics: after experiencing death, stigma and trauma, queers have nothing to fear. Acting together and militantly, queers can form their own communities, live in their own ghettos, and build their own cultures outside the mainstream and middle-class norms. In other words, queers have nothing to fear; with the globalisation of sexualities, the conservative and heteronormative society has a lot to fear of a ‘queer planet’.
In today’s China, queers seem to have a lot to fear: the lack of official recognition of sexual citizenship, the ‘symbolistic annihilation’ of queer existence in mainstream media, the government crack-down of queer public events, and the incorporation of queer lifestyle in consumerism and the ‘pink economy’. In 2015, the queer-identified ‘Feminist Five’ were arrested and detained by the police for their planned International Women’s Day feminist activism. In 2017, China’s media regulator, SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television), released new regulations banning queer contents from the Internet and social media. In 2017, Chinese queer photographer Ren Hang committed suicide. Although the reason for Ren’s suicide was unclear, the news itself was enough to engender fear in China’s queer community. Meanwhile, hospitals and clinics continue to ‘treat’ gay people with various forms of conversion therapy. The Beijing Queer Film Festival has gone underground for some years because of government censorship. The Chinese New Year remains the most difficult time of the year for queer people because of the family pressure for them to enter into heterosexual marriages. Indeed, queers have every reason to worry and to fear in today’s China.
Meanwhile, I would like to read ‘fear of a queer China’ in a more positive light: queers in China have nothing to fear; instead, the mainstream Chinese society has a lot to fear about queers. This is demonstrated by queer people’s courage, perseverance and ingenuity to fight against multiple forms of discriminations, represented by Fan Popo’s challenge to the state media regulator over the ban of his queer films, Peng Yanhui’s successful lawsuit against gay conversion therapy, Qiu Bai’s court case against the Ministry of Education over homophobia in Chinese textbooks, and the Feminist Five’s unrelenting fight for international women’s solidarity and against a misogynistic culture, the excellent community based work carried out by queer grassroots organisations, and the continuing existence of queer public events such as pride and queer film festivals. These should give us confidence in the future of a queer China; these should also engender fear for everything that stands in the way of queer existence. Indeed, queers have nothing to fear. Pace Karl Marx: let the world tremble at a queer revolution. The queers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
While I read ‘fear’ in multiple and ambivalent ways, I acknowledge that fear is an emotion that mediates between structure and agency, and between society and individuals. Fears can be engendered, reinforced and manipulated; they can also be overcome, conquered and eliminated. Fear can be both endured and enduring, overwhelmed and overwhelming, and empowered and empowering. ‘Fear of a queer China’ is not an exaggeration of the risks and difficulties that Chinese queer activism faces (although they do exist and they can be daunting at times); nor is it an inducement of a Western-type of anti-social queer politics (although the China/West binary needs to be rethought and redefined in a transnational context); it is rather a critical assessment of how things are at the moment and what needs to be done in time. If queer activism in China is seen as suffering from depression and stagnation at this historical juncture, it is time, and indeed this is a good opportunity, to pause and ponder on what has been done and what still needs to be done.
Warner suggests bringing together political activism with queer theorisation. For him, activist practices usually come first, and scholars need to keep up with what is going on: ‘queer theory, in short, has much work to do just in keeping up with queer political culture’. This type of academic humility is very much needed in an age when the boundary between academia and activism seems difficult to cross. Meanwhile, the queer theories developed by Warner and other scholars have inspired queer activism around the world. The cross-pollination of ideas and co-production of knowledge makes queer theory continue to be socially and politically relevant. Indeed, queer scholars and queer activists have a lot to learn from each other as they work together and inspire each other, and as they share the commitment to a queer cause. The workshop thus brings together queer scholars and activists to undertake the queer cause. In facilitating critical dialogues and in forging affective solidarity, the workshop aims to make the world queerer.