Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 24 September 2023


China’s planned ban on offensive clothing shows growing intolerance

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China’s authoritarian rulers already try to control what its citizens read, see and even think. But the ever-paranoid leaders are apparently still not content with their near-domination over the private lives of the people they purport to represent. Now they want to control what Chinese citizens wear.

The Standing Committee of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, has published the draft of a proposal to ban clothing deemed “detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese people” and that “hurt the feelings” of the Chinese people. Anyone caught sporting such offensive clothing could be subject to a fine of up to $680 and up to 15 days in jail.

As usual in China, the purpose of the proposed new law was not spelled out. But it comes after a spate of incidents involving Chinese citizens wearing traditional Japanese clothing, which infuriates hard-line nationalists given the two countries’ wartime history. In one incident, a woman in Suzhou city was detained by police for wearing a Japanese kimono; she was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” That’s the catchall phrasing China’s authorities use to target anyone considered a troublemaker. Other Chinese citizens dressed in “cosplay” to imitate Japanese anime characters were also reportedly harassed.

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The government’s move also comes after concertgoers and students were targeted by authorities for wearing rainbow images on their clothing or handing out rainbow flags in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. China’s leaders have similarly embarked on a recent campaign against teenagers sporting tattoos or men wearing feminine attire. A Chinese high school was in the news not long ago for banning “weird” hairstyles, defined as long hair on girls and sideburns or mullets on boys.

The proposed ban on offensive clothing is itself offensive on many levels. But most worrisome is the lack of specificity in the draft language. Nowhere is it defined what specific clothing items might be considered “detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese people.” And what specific piece of clothing might hurt the Chinese people’s delicate sensibilities is not clarified. That vagueness would empower any police officer on the street to detain pretty much anyone wearing anything the police officer didn’t like.

Many other countries have clothing bans, usually involving religious, cultural or historic reasons. Germany outlaws public displays of swastikas or other Nazi symbols. Some Muslim countries in the Middle East prohibit women from venturing outside without head or face coverings. Culturally conservative countries such as Uganda dictate that women cannot wear short miniskirts above the knee. Some tourist destinations in Croatia and the Maldives warn visitors not to wear skimpy swimwear away from the beaches. Greece bans high heels at ancient sites.

In 2010 France, concerned about a rise in Muslim immigration and fiercely protective of its secular identity, passed a law banning full-face coverings in public, which included burqas along with motorcycle helmets, ski masks and balaclavas.

But China’s proposed ban is unusually draconian for its lack of specificity and for seeming to target any form of individual attire that might offend the Communist Party’s notions of patriotism and nationalism, which lately have become increasingly anti-Western.

The proposed law change was published on a government website for a period of public consultation, which extends until the end of September. So far, the feedback has been largely negative, with lawyers, scholars, journalists and ordinary citizens bemoaning this latest crackdown on personal freedom and free expression as an example of the rulers’ growing intolerance.

China’s closed and secretive Communist leadership almost never listens to the views of its own people, and this kind of consultation is usually little more than performative. But if the leaders do not pay attention to the feedback, they will risk further alienating the young and creative Chinese whom the world’s second-largest economy needs to prosper in decades to come.

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