When Uniqlo first opened in New York a few years ago, I visited the Soho branch with my mom. We were greatly underwhelmed by the rows and rows of simple tee-shirts and jeans, stacked high on the walls, each item available in a rainbow of colors. After that visit, I seldom returned to the store. The up and coming franchise faded from my thoughts; that is, until I woke up one morning and saw its fire truck red logo slathered across my Facebook’s feed and the internet.
On the night of July 14th, a sex tape was posted to Weibo. As the video was shared and circulated, it all but broke the famous social networking site which is used by 90% of Chinese citizens. It was quickly reposted on other networks such as, WeChat, a popular mobile chatting app. By the next morning, you would be hard pressed to find someone who had a phone and an internet connection in China who had not heard of the Uniqlo Sextape. The one minute clip features a couple having sex in a Uniqlo fitting room in Beijing’s Sanlitun Village, a popular outdoor shopping complex. Almost as soon as it was posted, the video was deleted. Weibo immediately started deleting accounts and blocking the proliferation. Additionally, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) entered talks with Tencent and Sina, which own Weibo and Weixin, to police further proliferation of the video and its contents. Five suspects, including the couple featured in the video, have been arrested and accused of “immoral sex.” In fact, the CAC has called the incident “a serious breach of socialist core values.” According to China.com, the couple’s names are Hou Tianxu and Yutian, thought to be two students attending the Business College of Beijing Union University. Hou Tianxu posted on his WeChat a few days later, “I don’t know whether it was the virus on my phone or my laptop. The video was recorded because my girlfriend and I had to spend some time apart…I hope everyone can give us some private space, let this go and don’t pressurise my girlfriend and I.” YuTian later confirmed that the woman was herself. Both accounts have now been deleted. To top this off, when one searches “Uniqlo” in Weibo’s search bar, a message appears saying “’According to law and regulation, the search result cannot be displayed.”
A quick look at China’s history with censorship reveals a country hell-bent on repressing explicit material and radical thoughts. It also reveals a long history of intolerance with sexual freedom of expression. For example, pornography has been banned since 1949 which means that anyone who distributes or purchases “lewd” material will be penalized though the exact definition of “lewd material” remains unclear. The tabooing of sex dates back as far as the 10th Century Song Dynasty. Surprisingly, between then and the 1960s, sexual freedom became less restricted, at least until the 1970s Cultural Revolution. Led by Mao ZeDong, the Communist Party’s takeover was the catalyst for the sexual repression that still pervades Chinese culture today. During the Cultural Revolution, female beauty was a representation of the bourgeois. For example, many women were forced to cut their hair short per order of the Party. Sex and romance were deemed decadent. This cleansing instilled the notion that the sole purpose of sex was to reproduce. Not long after, the Party instituted the one-child policy, one of the greatest signifiers of Chinese sexual repression. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping became president and his modernization campaign helped relaxed many strict regulations imposed by the Party. In an incremental movement, citizens were allowed to enjoy sex again. However, after so many years, these deeply entrenched beliefs remain prevalent in Chinese culture. Relative to the United States, a country that mandates sexual education classes and recently legalized gay marriage, China is the unmistakable puritan sibling.
It is unsurprising and a little predictable, then, that the Uniqlo Sextape has caused so much controversy and sensationalism. There seems to be a talkback taking place between Chinese censorship and its repressed citizens. The younger generation has since become obsessed with the scandal. One man had the couple tattooed onto his arm. Others are selling t-shirts with slogans such as “Make love everywhere” accompanied by a screen-cap of the sex tape, comparable to the “Make Love, Not War” t-shirts worn by American teenagers in the 1970s. The Uniqlo in Sanlitun Villge has become an infamous tourist spot with friends taking selfies in front of the building, striking poses similar to the ones made by the couple in the video. In certain aspects, this is reminiscent of the sexual revolution of the 1970s in the United States. Perhaps not on such a large scale, but it is obvious the youth, at least, are weary of being unable to represent their sexuality, taking to social media to rebel. We can see this as the scandal quickly dissolved into a game of Tom and Jerry as the CAC tried to reel in the distribution of the video, but its contents and the message could not be captured.
In March, New York Times interviewed Professor Li Yinhe, a “leading advocate of freewheeling sexuality” Professor Li is a trained sociologist married to a transgender husband. She is a champion of one night stands, sadomasochistic sex, and the decriminalization of pornography. She has been researching sexual freedom and acceptance in China for many years and has found that the changes have been monumental. In 1989, 15% of the 2,500 people she interviewed had participated in premarital sex. In 2013, the number rose to 70%. These numbers, though hardly representative of the entire Chinese population, is indicative of a higher acceptance of sexual exploration.
Perhaps Hu Tianxu was being honest and the posting of the video was truly an accident. Regardless, the response it engendered, a fervor to keep the defiance of the video alive, was far from one. The Uniqlo affair and the subsequent pushback by the people of the Republic is a display of the impetus for sexual freedom. It is evident, whether China likes it or not, that repression is no longer the status quo.
By Judy Zhang ’18
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