Government Authorities in Beijing are reconsidering their publicity tactics after failing to attract a sizeable interest in the city’s first government-run gay Internet forum after two months on line and only 1,000 hits.

The sites managers admit that “Forum for Comrades” – “Comrades” (“tongzhi”) being the slang term for homosexuals in China – has suffered from a total lack of publicity despite its health messages and open nature.

The site had failed to attract postings on its notice board on www.cystd.com, an official website of the Disease Prevention and Control Centre of Chaoyang District to promote AIDS prevention knowledge, Fu Qingyuan, an official with the centre, told Xinhua news agency.

The forum had two chat rooms: one for same-sex lovers to share their emotions and experiences; and the other for health advisers to offer counselling and advice on AIDS, said Fu, who is in charge of the website.

“We actually opened the forum in June, but didn’t publicise the issue because we feared it might spur debate among the public,” he said. “After all, this is the first government-backed forum in Beijing to openly discuss same-sex love, which is a highly controversial issue in China.”

With coverage provided by the Beijing Times today, though, the number of visitors to the site has increased dramatically and the number of postings had tripled in several hours.

“I’ve found this website only today,” wrote a Internet user who gave his name as “Call for Love”. “I hope the government and society will understand us: we ‘comrades’ are as good, faithful and law-abiding as anyone else. Please do not discriminate against us, or treat us only as AIDS patients.”

Fu said few people joined the discussions probably because they thought their postings would be considered “obscene” and deleted.

“Such fears are really unnecessary because the forum is designed for health advisers to hear this group’s actual needs, enhance communication and prevent the potential spread of AIDS,” he said. “We won’t delete any message except those that offer prostitution services or contain pornographic pictures.”

He said the centre may consider launching a moderate media campaign to publicise the forum, but sparingly. “Again we’ll be very careful because it’s a sensitive and touchy issue.”

Alongside the comrades’ forum, Fu’s website also publishes domestic and international developments on AIDS diagnosis and treatment and has an online question and answer session hosted by medical workers.

China has between five million and 10 million gay men, according to official figures published in 2004, the most recent data available. The number of lesbians was not published, but Zhang Beichuan, a Qingdao University professor and a renowned expert on homosexual studies, estimated there are around 10 million.

Previously though homosexual rights and health issues have been purposely ignored or suppressed by China’s government. Human Rights Watch (HRW) have claimed that over February and March this year a prominent AIDS activist was ‘detained’ for 41 days ‘without explanation’. HRW has also publicised how in March this year at least 23 people were arrested in Henan province for trying to deliver a petition to the Chinese congress.

“Regardless of what people think, same-sex love is an inevitable social issue we have to face,” said Shi Wei, a top health official in Chaoyang District, which has the city’s largest white-collar and migrant population.

China, unlike Christian Europe, has no historic homophobic culture, however it was only removed off a list of mental disorders in 2001.

Confucius, for instance, place no limit on a man’s sexual or romantic choices if he can ensure the continuation of his family line with children. Taoism is similar recognising how a person’s yin or yang balance can affect their sexual choices.