China's largest online commerce company has thrown its weight behind marriage equality with its latest PR campaign, which invited the public to vote for 10 same-sex couples who will be flown to California to marry this summer.
The campaign is a publicity stunt for TaoBao, a subsidiary of Alibaba, the company that controls 80% of China's online retail and does more business than eBay and Amazon combined. More than 75,000 votes were cast to pick 10 couples out of 200 who were shortlisted with the help of four LGBT rights organizations, Reuters reported. The couples will receive a weeklong honeymoon package along with the flight to California. Alibaba spokesperson Melanie Lee told Reuters that it intended the contest to be "a symbolic kind of gesture" that it "hopes to evoke respect and understanding of homosexuality and support the realisation of dreams."
The contest may have been aimed as much at audiences in California's tech hubs as in China itself. Alibaba is increasingly positioning itself as a global tech giant, raising $25 billion in the world's largest IPO ever when it went public on the New York Stock Exchange in September. But this is the latest sign that there are substantial openings to promote LGBT rights in China — where although sodomy was decriminalized around 20 years ago, the couples chosen for this promotion would be unable to marry legally — even as the government keeps a close watch on overtly political activities.
Nine activists were arrested last May in Beijing and ordered to cancel a seminar teaching organizations how to register with the government, which would give them formal permission to operate in the country. The arrests were unusual and part of a larger clampdown on civil society ahead of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 massacre of democracy activists in Tiananmen Square.
Generally, Chinese authorities have tolerated a broad range of LGBT events as long as they were not portrayed as political protests, so there has been a bright line against organizing pride marches. Last May's arrests were triggered in part because of the participation of a 20-year-old named Xiang Xiaohan, who was arrested the year before for organizing a pride parade in his province of Hunan. A march he'd planned for a short time after the arrests was instead converted into a group hike billed as a social outing.
But authorities have not prevented events that organizers describe as "performance art," such as staging same-sex weddings on the street or going to government offices to attempt to register unions. LGBT activists have also found some opportunities in the courts. In December, a 30-year-old named Yang Teng won a judgment against a clinic that used electroshock therapy to try to "cure" him of homosexuality and was awarded modest damages equivalent to about $560. In late January, a court in the southern city of Shenzhen heard the country's first nondiscrimination case brought by a gay man, who said he was fired after posting a coming out video online.