Party Police: Cops Raid Gay Bar in Shanghai

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A weekend raid at a club in Shanghai was a stark reminder of what can happen when homophobia meets the all-too-heavy hand of the law. Shanghaiist reports:

Early Sunday morning, police stormed into Q Bar in the middle of a gogo boy performance, turned the lights on, and shoved about 70 bar employees and patrons (save the foreigners) batch by batch into a minivan that whittled them away to the Xiaodongmen police station, just a stone’s throw away from the bar.

At the station, they were locked up in three rooms, where they were left in the cold without food or water, unattended to and uninformed of what was happening next. It was not until noon the next day when questioning began, and police attempted to make them sign off on statements that were in some instances contrary to what they had said.

The state-backed Shanghai Daily said the bar was targeted “after complaints that it was staging sex shows” — a claim has been denied by several people in attendance. “Yes, it was a sexy show, but it certainly wasn’t a sex show,” one patron told Shanghaiist. Scantily-clad dancers are certainly not uncommon in Chinese clubs — so why the crackdown? The reasons still aren’t clear, but I’d like to address two potential factors:

First, homophobia. There is no question that China — like much of the world — has a long way to go when it comes to embracing sexual diversity and protecting gay rights.  Although the Chinese literary cannon contains references to same-sex pairings, the People’s Republic has, for the most part, taken a hard line on homosexuality. Sodomy was a crime until 1997 and the Chinese Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental illness until 2001. For many gays in China, particularly those living in rural areas, fear, isolation and stigma persist.

Big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou have vibrant gay scenes that operate with minimal official interference — until they don’t. The state’s approach is sometimes called the Triple No Policy: no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. It’s a deliberately opaque stance that leaves much open to interpretation.  As I reported in 2008, China’s first-ever gay pride event, in Shanghai, started off strong but was interrupted mid-week when cops showed up at a literary event. Later, venues were shuttered without warning or explanation.

Which brings us to the second factor: police corruption. In the wake of the raid on Q Bar, rumors swirled that the police had been called, and presumably bribed, by the owner of a rival club. The notion that raids on gay nightclubs are as likely to stem from inter-bar rivalries as outright homophobia is something I’ve encountered often when reporting on LGBT issues in China.

From where I’m sitting (Hong Kong, at present), it’s impossible to know what the case was here. In China, the state doesn’t need to give a reason — whether you’re gay or straight.

More on TIME.com: Read about gay rights in China here; More on the disappearance of Ai Weiwei, here.

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