China police detain gay activists after Xian event canceled

BEIJING (Reuters) - Police in China’s northwestern city of Xian briefly detained nine gay activists, saying the city did not welcome gay people, after they tried to organize a gay rights conference there, one of the activists told Reuters on Wednesday.

The move came as China’s gay community has been celebrating Taiwan’s recent decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry, a first for Asia, and amid a broader clampdown on civil society and rights activism under President Xi Jinping.

The event organized by the Chinese group Speak Out was to have started on Sunday, but police took away nine of the organizers early that morning and questioned them for several hours before letting them go, an organizer who gave his name only as Matthew told Reuters.

“They were very clear in telling us we couldn’t organize activities in Xian again, and that they didn’t welcome gays,” Matthew added.

However, he said that police had not given a specific reason why the event could not be held in Xian. According to the group’s WeChat account, 400 people were expected to attend.

Police in Xian referred questions to their information department, which did not answer telephone calls to seek comment.

Matthew said he did not think there was a connection between the Xian event being shut down and Taiwan’s decision.

“Some people around me have said this to me, but I think the effect of Taiwan on the Chinese mainland is very limited,” he said.

Xian is a major tourist destination, best known as the home of the Terracotta Army and one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.

The event had already run into problems as venues the group had booked canceled on them, prompting the group to decide on Saturday evening to cancel the conference, titled “the Xian Spirit,” Speak Out said in a separate statement.

The cancellation and the detentions generated hundreds of postings on China’s Twitter-like Weibo site, with many people expressing anger at the city of Xian for setting a poor, intolerant example for the rest of the country.

“Look at Taiwan, and then go look at Xian,” wrote one Weibo user.

It is not illegal to be gay in China, although until 2001 the country regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder. Many large cities have thriving gay scenes, but gay individuals still face a lot of family pressure to get married and have children.

Gay activists say deeply conservative attitudes toward homosexuality in some parts of society have led to occasional government clampdowns.

Last week, popular Chinese lesbian dating app Rela was shut down, though it is not yet clear why.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez