In what appears to be the latest of Beijing’s crackdowns on freedom of expression, China is circulating a draft version of a law that would punish people for wearing clothes that “are deemed detrimental or hurtful to China's spirit or sentiments."
Violators could be detained for five to 10 days and fined as much as 5,000 yuan, or $687.67, a significant amount in a nation where the per capita income hovers near 100,000 yuan, or just over $13,700, according to the International Monetary Fund. Online public response has been withering, calling the proposed law “overintervention” and “absurd.”
According to Article 34-2 of the revised draft, the Public Security Administration Punishment Law, which was recently reviewed and promulgated by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China, targets people who "wear clothes, accessories or symbols themselves or force others to wear clothes, accessories or symbols in public that are deemed detrimental or hurtful to China's spirit or sentiments."
During the pandemic, Chinese authorities intensified control of what was already heavily restricted online freedom of expression by removing online footage of protests against Draconian lockdowns. The so-called Great Firewall controls the flow of information into and out of the country.
Chen Jiangang, a former Chinese human rights lawyer now living in Maryland, told VOA Mandarin that the law shows that the Chinese Communist Party wants to control even “what we ordinary people wear.”
What about free speech?
Xu Lin, a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in Guangzhou, believes that people's clothing and accessories should not be criminalized and elevated to the level of "harming the Chinese nation's spirit and feelings."
He told VOA Mandarin, "Wearing clothes is completely a matter of personal freedom. Even if he expresses a certain meaning, doesn't that fall within the scope of freedom of speech? Everyone has the right to express his or her position and opinions."
Lao Dongyan, a professor of criminal law at Tsinghua University, posted on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of X, "The direct interference of state power in people's daily clothing is obviously overintervention. ... Such an amendment may stimulate the wanton spread of populist or ultranationalist sentiments and further deteriorate the public sphere. The public opinion environment should not suppress individuals' free space for daily dressing and speech."
Liu Zhengqing, a former lawyer in Guangzhou, said China's laws have always been enacted according to the CCP's wishes and based on policy needs.
He told VOA Mandarin, "The Communist Party now does whatever they want. They don't make laws and have strict procedures like Western countries. They are very arbitrary."
The law may have its roots in China’s growing nationalism. A lawyer in Beijing, who asked not to be named to avoid attracting official attention, pointed to the arrest and detention on August 10, 2022, of a woman in Suzhou who wore a kimono for cosplaying as a character from a Japanese manga series.
Although Japanese manga, anime and games are popular in China, resentment runs deep in over the refusal of Japan’s government to apologize for war crimes during the Sino-Japanese wars. Photos and video of the kimono-clad woman went viral at a sensitive time a few days later, on the August 15 anniversary of Japan’s announced surrender at the end of World War II in 1945.
Online videos showed local police yelling at the woman, "You are Chinese, but you are wearing a kimono!," before detaining her on suspicion of “provoking quarrels and trouble,” a vague denunciation used routinely by Chinese authorities against dissidents, journalists and activists.
During the more than five-hour detention, the woman was lectured, the photos of her in the kimono were deleted and her kimono was confiscated. She also had to write a confession.
At the time, some netizens supported the police, saying, "The girl in the kimono hurt national sentiments." The Chinese state-run media, CCTV, also said, "It's not that we are too sensitive, but that what we experienced was too painful."
From Japan’s invasion of the resource-rich Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931 until its defeat, at least 20 million Chinese people died.
Other netizens supported the woman's freedom to dress, claiming that the law did not stipulate that she could not wear a kimono and that it did not involve sensitive times and places. "Why is it a crime to wear a kimono?" asked one. "You shouldn't wear a suit either. Have you forgotten that your ancestors were oppressed by the Europeans?"
Although the police later returned the kimono to the woman, they did not apologize.
If the draft becomes law, the Suzhou incident would likely be a violation.
Xu said that if the draft becomes law, defining what constitutes a violation will be key to preventing abuse.
He said, "What is considered to be hurting national sentiments? Without a clear definition, it would be up to law enforcement officers to define it: If they say yes, then yes; if they say no, then no. It will easily lead to abuse of power."
Space for corruption
Lao Dongyan, a professor of criminal law at Tsinghua University, said on Weibo, "'Harming and hurting the spirit and sentiments of the Chinese nation' is a concept with extremely vague connotations. Different people will have completely different understandings."
In another post, she said, "Due to vague punishment standards, it will inevitably lead to selective enforcement of administrative power, which is prone to abuse of power, creating new space for the growth of corruption, and may intensify conflicts between the police and the public, bringing new risks to social stability."
Some netizens posted a photo on X, formerly known as Twitter, showing former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping bowing during a visit to Japan in 1978 when he asked the government and major companies for economic assistance. The post said, "Excuse me, has he committed the crime of hurting the feelings of the Chinese nation? How should he be punished?"