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Francois Dupouy and Wu Xianle at their marriage ceremony in Paris on April 26, 2014.

Francois Dupouy and Wu Xianle at their marriage ceremony in Paris on April 26, 2014.Supplied

Visiting China in the early 2000s, Francois Dupouy fell in love with the country – the dynamism, the culture, the language. After he retired in 2008, he moved from his home in France to study Chinese in Beijing, where he fell in love again, this time with a man he met on the street.

China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from a list of mental disorders four years later. In the decade that followed, LGBTQ venues proliferated, and pride events were held in Shanghai and other cities. On the legal front, activists campaigned for same-sex marriage and launched cases against clinics offering so-called “conversion therapy.”

“People didn’t seem to be frightened,” Mr. Dupouy said. “The biggest problem for most gay people those days was their family.”

This wasn’t a problem for Mr. Dupouy’s new partner, Wu Xianle, who was divorced with an adult daughter and whose parents accepted his sexuality. In 2014, the two men married during a visit to Paris, just a year after a change in French law made this possible.

But in 2022, Mr. Wu, an official with the Communist Party, was jailed after a secret trial that Mr. Dupouy believes was connected to his sexuality.

While Europe was making progress on LGBTQ rights in the 2010s, China appeared headed in the opposite direction. In 2012, Xi Jinping had become president, and from the outset he took a more conservative approach on social issues while seeking to rein in civil society groups. Labour, feminist and legal rights NGOs were shut down and activists imprisoned; TV shows and movies were banned from promoting same-sex relationships or “abnormal aesthetics.”

Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center, said under Mr. Xi there has been “a real suffocation of pro-LGBT voices.”

“I think this reflects a thread of thinking in the party state – that being LGBT can be socially engineered away if you can change the cultural environment,” Mr. Longarino said.

This conservative turn may have been exacerbated by concerns over China’s low marriage and birth rate, with some openly blaming sexual liberalism for demographic issues.

“It’s very different to 10 years ago when you could find commentary in state media that was quite progressive and supportive,” Mr. Longarino said.

In 2020, Shanghai Pride was shut down. Last year, the Beijing LGBT Center, which played a key role in many legal cases, also closed. Online, discussion of LGBTQ issues is now tightly controlled.

There are no statistics for the number of LGBTQ people in China. In the West, around 4 to 7 per cent of the population identifies as LGBTQ, which would amount to between 56 and 100 million people in the country.

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Wu Xianle, seen in a photo taken by Francois Dupouy in May 2020. It was one of the last times Mr. Dupouy saw his husband before he was arrested.

Mr. Wu, in a photo taken by Mr. Dupouy in May, 2020. It was one of the last times Mr. Dupouy saw his husband before he was arrested.

Multiple LGBTQ people living in China interviewed for this story, who are not being identified by The Globe because of concerns for their safety, said the narrowing of space for the community has been palpable, leading to greater discrimination and fear of backlash for being public about their sexuality.

“There are still bars and stuff, but there’s obviously very little activism to speak of,” said an American tech worker in Shanghai. “Meanwhile, workplace culture seems not to have improved at all in the past 10 years.”

The American moved to the city in the early 2010s, when it had one of the most vibrant gay scenes in the country; it was common to see same-sex couples in some areas. But many Shanghai LGBTQ venues, subject to near constant police inspections and other harassment, have shut down in recent years. Activism is now non-existent, they said.

A Chinese fashion industry worker in Shenzhen said things were more liberal a decade ago, “when the leader was a different person.” Now they said, people are less willing to talk about LGBTQ issues, with even previously outspoken celebrities avoiding the topic on social media.

“Many things have gone underground,” they said. “That’s the good thing about the LGBT community in China, people always find a solution.”

Some activists have refused to bow to the increasingly hostile environment. China Dissent Monitor, run by the U.S.-based human-rights watchdog Freedom House, tracked 36 instances of LGBTQ dissent last year, including posts on social media, art performances, the distribution of flyers and small-scale demonstrations.

News of all of these incidents was quickly censored however, limiting their impact, and several people involved were arrested or questioned by police, according to the CDM database.

Mr. Dupouy believes being gay is what ultimately doomed Mr. Wu.

“I asked him several times, including when he decided we should get married, don’t you think it’s dangerous? And he said no. I always had the feeling that he was protected by someone,” Mr. Dupouy said. “He felt safe. Which proved to be totally wrong.”

In January, 2021, while Mr. Dupouy was stuck in France because of China’s tough COVID-19 controls, his stepdaughter contacted him, saying Mr. Wu had disappeared. For a year the family had no news, until they were informed Mr. Wu was being put on trial in February, 2022.

When the family asked what Mr. Wu was being charged with, they were told it was a “state secret,” Mr. Dupouy said. Three months after the closed-door trial, Mr. Wu was sentenced to 11 years in prison, to be served from the date of his arrest.

The Globe and Mail was unable to independently confirm Mr. Dupouy’s account of the trial, which has previously been reported in French media. China’s Ministry of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

According to his husband, Mr. Wu was a member of the Communist Youth League, a wing of the party associated with former president Hu Jintao.

In October, 2022, the former president, then 79, was humiliatingly removed from a high-profile party event, apparently on Mr. Xi’s orders. The once hugely influential Youth League has been increasingly marginalized, though some officials associated with Mr. Hu, most notably his son, Hu Haifeng, continue to hold senior positions within the party.

Mo Shaoping, a prominent Chinese human-rights lawyer, noted that homosexuality is not illegal in China, but that if a person works within the system their sexuality “could be a reason to punish them on so-called party discipline grounds.”

Mr. Longarino described Mr. Wu’s case as “very troubling,” and said while there are obviously a number of factors at play, being gay “likely didn’t help.”

Mr. Dupouy believes being married to a foreigner may have long cast suspicion on Mr. Wu, but that his connections in the party protected him for a time. Under Mr. Xi, there has been an increased focus on national security, with the authorities warning people to look out for foreign spies in their midst.

At first, Mr. Dupouy kept silent after his husband’s detention, fearing going public could make things worse. He changed his mind after Mr. Wu was apparently assaulted in prison late last year, resulting in a detached retina and broken fingers. Since speaking to French media, Mr. Dupouy said there has been gradual improvement in Mr. Wu’s conditions: He is now allowed regular phone calls with his daughter and was treated for his sight issue.

Laura Gounon, a spokeswoman for France’s embassy in Beijing, said Mr. Wu’s case has been followed “with great attention by the French authorities ever since he was arrested in January, 2021.”

In 2019, the couple discussed moving to Paris, but Mr. Dupouy advised waiting, as Mr. Wu was then under 55 and therefore not eligible for his husband’s pension were Mr. Dupouy – 20 years his elder – to die. Mr. Wu ended up celebrating that birthday in prison, and his husband now fears they may never reunite.

After Mr. Wu’s arrest, Mr. Dupouy said he suffered nightmares and couldn’t sleep, but while the pain is “still awful, you get used to all sorts of things.” He said he lived through the AIDS crisis and lost his first partner to the illness.

“I have become sort of used to tragedy.”

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