In a recent concerning move, China has proposed changes to a law that, if approved, would allow authorities to fine and detain people who wear clothes that “hurt the nation’s feelings.” This announcement sparked new concerns over freedom of expression in the country. But what does it even mean?
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which unveiled the proposal on its website in September 2023, is seeking to ban clothes and symbols considered “detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese nation.” If you’re not sure what that’s supposed to mean, it’s a phrasing often used to denote a lack of patriotism.
If passed, transgressors of this new law could face detention for up to 15 days and fines of up to 5,000 yuan ($680, £560). These penalties would also apply to those who create or share articles or speeches with a similar effect.
But here’s the kicker: the proposal doesn’t clearly define what constitutes an offence. That’s where the real controversy lies. Legal experts within China have criticised the vague wording of the law, fearing that it could be open to misuse. They worry that law enforcement officers might subjectively interpret the concept of “hurt feelings” and make moral judgments far beyond the ban’s intended scope.
To illustrate the potential absurdity of this law, consider a case from 2022. A woman who wore a kimono—a traditional Japanese garment and the national dress of Japan—while cosplaying was detained in Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai, and accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” simply because of her choice of clothing.
Similar crackdowns on clothing choices have occurred, including the detention of a woman who wore a replica of a Japanese military uniform in March 2023, and the denial of entry to individuals wearing rainbow print clothing at a concert by Taiwanese singer Chang Hui-mei in Beijing.
Online discussions have raised valid questions about how law enforcement can unilaterally decide when the “feelings” of a nation are hurt. For example, could a homophobic policeman use said law to arrest someone wearing a symbol of LGBTQIA+ pride? Some have even pondered whether wearing a suit and tie, originally from the West, could also be considered detrimental to Chinese feelings.
This proposed law is just one example of how Chinese President Xi Jinping has been reshaping the definition of a model Chinese citizen since taking office in 2012. In 2019, the Chinese Communist Party issued “morality guidelines” that included directives like being polite, reducing carbon footprints, and having “faith” in President Xi and the party.
This ambiguous law has sparked concerns among Chinese citizens, legal scholars, and social media users who fear potential overreach and its impact on personal freedoms. Many are also worried about the rise of extreme nationalism and how it might affect China’s relationships with other countries.
Zhao Hong, a distinguished law professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, has expressed her deep concerns about the lack of clarity in the legislation. She asserts that this ambiguity might result in a violation of personal rights and freedoms. “What if the law enforcer, usually a police officer, has a personal interpretation of the hurt and initiates moral judgment of others beyond the scope of the law?” she wrote in an article, as reported by the BBC.
Another change that was recently made by the Chinese government was the decision to prohibit female models from displaying undergarments on online platforms. In response, Chinese livestream platforms have taken an innovative approach by featuring male models in their videos instead. These male models have garnered attention for showcasing various lingerie styles in videos that have gone viral on Douyin, China’s equivalent of TikTok.
As debates continue, many are calling for specific guidelines and clearer definitions within the legislation. China’s contentious dress code law is undeniably alarming; it goes beyond clothing, making us question how freely we can express ourselves.