China’s proposed ban on ‘hurtful’ clothing is a worrying sign of advancing intolerance in society

chinas proposed ban on hurtful clothing is a worrying sign of advancing intolerance in society 1

China’s proposed amendments to its public security administration punishments law are stirring heated debate among legal scholars about the consequences of expanding police powers and the possible erosion of personal freedom in the country.

One of the most controversial proposed changes is a clause stating that people garbed in clothing “detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese people and that hurts the feelings of the Chinese people” could be detained and fined. Legal scholars who published opinions opposing the law find it legally impossible to define the Chinese people’s “spirit” and “feelings”.

If the amendment becomes law, the power to define those terms falls to individual police officers. It is also likely to add unnecessary pressure on China’s frontline police, throwing them into endless controversy over law-enforcement activities.

For my generation, born after the Cultural Revolution and brought up amid China’s reform and opening up, the proposed law raises a red flag: it points to increasing intolerance that may sow division in Chinese society. It could also open a jar of worms in a country already facing rising nationalism, weakening economic growth, and polarisation among social groups.

Abuse fears sparked by China’s proposed ‘hurt feelings’ legal change

China’s reform and opening up, started by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, is about not only economic liberalisation, but also the emancipation of thought and tolerance of personal choices. China’s economic boom has provided people greater freedom in their lifestyle choices, including where to dine out, where to travel and what clothes to wear.

The image of China as a country of blue ants has long gone the way of the Mao jacket – once the only acceptable men’s attire. In the early 1980s, Chinese society had a brief debate about whether young people should dye their hair or wear jeans and sunglasses, but fear of a “bourgeois lifestyle” quickly fizzled away.

Clothing ceased being a political issue a long time ago. Even the more recent topic of the “Beijing bikini”, where men expose their bellies to keep cool on hot summer days, is debated half-jokingly. People have mostly learned to accept how others dress.

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Such tolerance is now disappearing. In a famous case in Suzhou last year, a girl was questioned by police for wearing a kimono, triggering nationwide debate. Under the newly proposed law, police would have solid legal ground to question and punish anyone in a “questionable” outfit.

Defenders of the amendment argue that there must be some legal measures to punish extreme dress, and some cited examples of Germany banning Nazi uniforms. It is one matter to target a specific symbol, but quite another to legalise a broad crackdown on clothing styles.

The danger of such a law is that it could lead to endless crackdowns. The first to be punished could be those in dress resembling Japanese military uniforms or kimonos. T-shirts and clothing with foreign characters could be next. Then maybe National Basketball Association team merchandise is targeted when a player makes comments challenging China’s official narrative.

In each round, the red line advances and the boom line retreats. Maybe one day, blue jeans will once again be seen as a symbol of American capitalism that hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.

It is not a small matter. China’s economic take-off started with individuals aspiring to improve their lives. The state’s receding role in day-to-day life, including through dress codes, sent a message that people can pursue happiness without fear. If state power is again expanded into this realm, even though seen as a small step, it is enough to frighten people.

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The move also conflicts with China’s intention to woo international investors. As Beijing tries to convince the rest of the world that the country remains business-friendly, an updated law allowing the police to, well, police what people wear is not going to help.

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South China Morning Post

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