NEW YORK -- The Chinese woman was in her 20s, dressed in black from head to toe, with a mask and sunglasses to conceal her identity. On a cloudy Saturday afternoon in New York City's Central Park, she was explaining colorful messages -- many with the rainbow of the LGBTQ movement -- affixed to slabs of carboard and hung on a fence.
"These are messages from members of our community. They're from all over the world but most of them live in China," the woman, who identified herself only as Amber, said in Mandarin to a small crowd.
"Our members on the mainland don't have a platform to express themselves, so I thought this is the least I could do. They sent me their messages and designs, and then we printed them out and made these boards."
Nearby, roughly 50 people sat on the grass. Some were taking photos at a handmade photo booth adorned with rainbow flags and a sign that read, "We are all user name not found."
The modest gathering came after more than a dozen WeChat accounts were abruptly taken down by the Chinese social network on July 6, citing complaints from other users about violations of platform rules. The accounts had belonged to LGBTQ and feminist student groups on university campuses along with nonprofit organizations. The notification said all content was blocked and that the accounts were seized.
The wiped accounts included student groups from some of China's best-known universities, such as Purple from Tsinghua University, Colorsworld from Peking University, Zhihe Society from Fudan University and WHU from Wuhan University.
WeChat, run by tech giant Tencent, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Activists say the crackdown offers a window on the growing pressure China's LGBTQ communities face, and an increasingly unwelcoming online atmosphere in general. Several participants in Central Park said the Chinese internet has become a toxic environment where they cannot have genuine debates, with bullies and trolls drowning out real discussion. And although many young people in top-tier Chinese cities have embraced feminist values and accepted the LGBTQ movement, there are limits.
"There's a famous saying about many people who 'support' queers in China, they'd say things like, 'I'm fine with you being queer, but my child can't be queer,'" said Bai Ye, a 20-something student in New York. "It wasn't that much better before the crackdown, it's just a different level of hell."
After the recent account takedowns, articles titled "Tonight, we are all user name not found" started circulating on WeChat amid an outcry in China and abroad. But some of these were swiftly blocked as well.
"I felt very sad and disappointed," said Yan Yan, 20, a student from Guangdong. "You could say that the achievements of over a decade of the LGBTQ equal rights movement disappeared in one night."
Yan said the space for the LGBTQ community has been shrinking in recent years. Organizers of the annual Pride festival in Shanghai said last August that they would not be scheduling future activities. LGBTQ groups at colleges are finding it harder to hold their own events. And now, LGBTQ social media accounts are at risk.
Yan speculated that the deletions might be related to complaints from extreme nationalist bloggers on Weibo -- China's answer to Twitter -- who argued in June that LGBTQ groups are "brainwashing the students with Western values."
"Extreme nationalists can never get along with the LGBTQ community and allies, because their values are traditional and they think our values are Western and too progressive," he said in Mandarin, drawing a link to the global rise of populism and conservatism along with the worsening U.S.-China relationship.
Amber, on the other hand, suggested the crackdown was more about what the Chinese government wants to achieve: obedience.
"They've been suppressing feminist voices and transgender voices. They've promoted the third child policy and that people should accept 996," Amber said, referring to the culture of working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
"I think the end goal is the same: They want to erase the sense of individualistic freedom in order to achieve an image of stability and prosperity under a central government."
Crystal and Blair -- two New York-based Chinese feminist activists who organized the Central Park event -- said the online clampdown was sudden but not a surprise. They asked not to share their real names for fear of internet bullying and doxxing, which happened to Crystal on Weibo.
They, too, talked about declining room for LGBTQ and feminist expression.
Crystal, 29, recalled that when she was in college in China, students had been able to hang rainbow flags during Pride month. Not anymore. She noted that the hashtag #les was removed from Weibo in 2019.
"Every Women's Day or Pride month, we would expect more censorship to come, every year we could feel the space shrinking a bit more," Crystal said. "Everybody on my WeChat feed was very sad and helpless ... It felt as if our mouths were sealed shut and we aren't allowed to exist."
Frustratingly, no one knows exactly what is and is not acceptable. Crystal and Blair, 26, think the ambiguity is deliberate.
"Everybody is asking the same question, 'Why? Where is the red line?' It feels like the red line is tightening ... [but] we have no idea where the bottom line lies," Crystal said. "This way, [the government] pushes the individuals to doubt themselves because there are no set rules, so you have to constantly censor yourself and not dare to take a step forward."
Blair said the fickle nature of the censorship makes the general public blame the victims rather than empathize with them.
"You feel like you've done something wrong when you're censored, but you've done nothing wrong," Blair said. "It has become natural for the public to, for example, question what you've posted when your Weibo account is taken down ... The question is asked backwards. Instead we should question what the tech platforms and government are doing, not further criticizing the people."
Nevertheless, some remain optimistic.
Fan, a student in her 20s from Shanghai who gave only her first name, said the feminist and LGBTQ movements have already taken root in China. "Even if they shut down the social media accounts, I think these movements will continue and people will become more and more aware," she said. "They can't really stop people from moving forward."
Amber and Blair emphasized the importance of building communities -- online and offline, in China or abroad.
"It's my personal belief that if you can't see the light, you can become the light," Amber said. "If you don't have a community, it's hard to face society's judgments on your own, you'll feel helpless. Forming a community is important for me, I believe in the power of the people."
Blair said, "Social media accounts can be taken down, platforms can be taken down, but the community will always be there."