WeChat, China's Biggest Social Media Platform, Removes Dozens of LGBT Accounts, Topics

China's largest social media platform, WeChat, has deleted without warning dozens of accounts for LGBT topics run by university students and nongovernmental groups, saying the account holders violated the rules but giving no other details.

The sudden shutdown prompted concerns that the country's Communist Party is making efforts to tighten control over LGBT content.

One account owner and the founder of an LGBT group, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of possible retaliation, said she and dozens of other account holders had received a notice from WeChat saying their account violated the rules.

All of the accounts were shut down at about 10 p.m. on Tuesday, she said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

LGBT pride parade China
WeChat suddenly shut down dozens of accounts for LGBT groups and topics this week in China. Above, people hold rainbow flags during an anti-discrimination parade in Changsha on May 17, 2013. STR/AFP via Getty Images

It wasn't clear whether the step was ordered by Chinese authorities, but it comes as the ruling party tightens political controls and tries to silence groups that might criticize its rule.

WeChat's operator, Tencent Holding Ltd., confirmed it received an email seeking comment but didn't immediately respond.

The Communist Party decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, but gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and other sexual minorities still face discrimination. While there is more public discussion of such issues, some LGBT activities have been blocked by authorities.

The official attitude is increasingly strict, the founder of the LGBT group said.

Contents of the WeChat accounts, which included personal stories and photos of group events, were erased, according to the group's founder.

The former operator of a different group for university students, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, called the step a devastating blow.

University officials asked students two months ago to shut down LGBT social media groups or to avoid mentioning their school names, according to the LGBT group founder. She said universities in the eastern province of Jiangsu were told by officials to investigate groups for women's rights and sexual minorities to "maintain stability."

Surveys suggest there are about 70 million LGBT people in China, or about 5 percent of the population, according to state media.

Some groups have organized film festivals and other public events, but those have dwindled. One of the most prominent, Shanghai Pride, canceled events last year and scrapped plans without explanation after 11 years of operation.

China's legislature received suggestions from the public about legalizing same-sex marriage two years ago, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. However, it gave no indication whether legislators might take action.

WeChat logo
WeChat on a smartphone screen in Beijing. Mark Schiefelbein, File/AP Photo