Survey by Shanghai University that asked colleges to research the political stance and ‘state of mind’ of members of LGBTQ+ communities has sparked alarm

LBGT flag
China authorities have a worsening intolerance for gender and sexual minority groups, particularly those engaged in activism. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

A well-known Chinese university appears to have asked its colleges to make lists of their LGBTQ+ students and report on their “state of mind”, according to a purported internal directive published online on both Chinese and foreign social media platforms.

Shanghai University has not confirmed the request or responded to queries about its intention, but it has sparked alarm among young Chinese people, coming after a crackdown on campus groups and organisations supporting LGBTQ+ and feminist communities.

The “Campus Survey”, citing “relevant requirements”, asked colleges to “investigate [and] research” students identified as LGBTQ+. It also requested information on the students’ state of mind and psychological condition, including political stance, social contacts, and mental health status. The questionnaire did not explain what “relevant requirements” it was referring to.

Students and activists have expressed concern that the information-gathering exercise could signal further targeting of students. Some legal experts on Weibo are questioning whether such a practice would violate China’s new data privacy law.

Shanghai University’s communications department could not be reached for comment. Other departments referred the Guardian to the communications department.

The original Weibo post with a screenshot of the document was shared or liked tens of thousands of times. According to the Weibo user who first posted the document, the post has now been taken down. Attempts by the Guardian to access the original post also returned an error message.

The screenshot of the questionnaire was also shared on western social media including Twitter, generating a heated discussion about China’s ongoing crackdowns on the country’s sexual minorities.

The incident comes amid Chinese authorities’ worsening intolerance for gender and sexual minority groups, particularly those engaged in activism. It has recently targeted feminist groups and individuals who have sought to resist discrimination.

Until recent years, China had a growing and vibrant LGBTQ+ community on its university campuses.

But as the political and social dynamics have changed in China in the past few years, the LGBTQ+ community has become increasingly marginalised. Shanghai Pride, China’s sole major annual celebration of sexual minorities, announced its shutdown last year.

The organisers of the event said that the move meant “the end of the rainbow” for them. “It’s been a great 12-year ride, and we are honoured and proud to have traveled this journey of raising awareness and promoting diversity for the LGBTQ community,” they wrote in an open letter.

In July, dozens of social media accounts run by LGBTQ+ university students were blocked and then deleted without warning. The accounts were a mix of registered student clubs and unofficial grassroots groups, and some had operated for years as safe spaces for China’s LGBTQ+ youth, with tens of thousands of followers. The move sparked outrage among some university students and activists.

Overseas China watchers were divided over the Shanghai University move. “Hoping this is just a misguided demographic study,” said Eric Hundman, an assistant professor at NYU Shanghai.

James Palmer, deputy editor of Foreign Policy and author of several books on Chinese politics, said it was “not great, to say the least”.

“But my guess is that this isn’t going to be about homophobic persecution as much as it about the system’s constant need to identify and monitor – especially potential activists,” he said.

  • Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin