(CNN) — WeChat has deleted more than a dozen LGBT accounts run by university students, sparking fears that safe spaces for China’s sexual and gender minorities are going to shrink even further.
On social media Tuesday, LGBT rights supporters protested the abrupt closure of these accounts by the Tencent-owned company. The deleted accounts were run by students across universities in China, including prestigious institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Fudan University in Shanghai.
While CNN Business was unable to access these deleted accounts, several followers posted screenshots of the notice that greeted them when they landed on the accounts’ empty pages.
“After receiving relevant complaints, all content has been blocked and the account has been put out of service,” the notice read, citing violation of a government regulation on the management of online public accounts.
WeChat did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from its official list of mental disorders in 2001. But same-sex marriage is still illegal in the country, and people who identify as LGBT continue to face discrimination in both personal and professional spheres. Activists fear that the Communist Party may further clamp down on safe spaces for sexual minorities in the country.
Some of the deleted LGBT groups were registered as student clubs at their universities, while others operated unofficially. Most of them had existed for years, offering students a sense of community and much-needed support, with posts ranging from LGBT-themed book and movie recommendations to resources for psychological assistance.
Cathy, a manager of one of the deleted LGBT group of a university in Beijing, said the 6-year-old account had about 18,000 followers.
The 25-year-old — who requested to use a pseudonym fearing retribution from authorities — has seen discussions on sexuality become more guarded at her university over the last few years. In the past, her group could openly advocate for LGBT rights on campus and hold small seminars for sexual minorities to share their stories. Now, their offline activities are limited to private gatherings, such as sharing a meal or watching a movie together, she said.
“In recent years, our goal is to simply survive, to continue to be able to serve LGBT students and provide them with warmth. We basically don’t engage in any radical advocating anymore,” added Cathy.
Last August, Shanghai Pride, China’s longest-running and only major annual celebration of sexual minorities, abruptly announced its shutdown after facing mounting pressure from local authorities.
Last month, soccer star Li Ying officially came out as a lesbian in a post on Weibo, becoming the first high-profile Chinese athlete to do so. Li later deleted the post, which drew wide support but also a wave of homophobic attacks.
The blocking of WeChat accounts triggered outrage on Chinese social media.
“The era is regressing. China wasn’t like this 10 years ago. Gradually we’re losing all our freedoms,” said a comment on Weibo.
But the move has been welcomed by online nationalists, some of whom claimed, without evidence, that these LGBT groups have been infiltrated by “foreign forces.”
“I support the blocking of the accounts…why should we keep these public accounts run by anti-China forces in our higher education institutions? Are we waiting for them to brain wash university students who have yet to form their values?” said one comment on Weibo.
Cathy, from the LGBT group in Beijing, called the claim “completely ridiculous.”
“Sexual minority groups have long existed in China, not because of any incitement from so-called foreign forces,” she said. “They do not understand (the LGBT community) at all, and have no intention to understand (us).”