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China’s legislature 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,” sparking new concerns over freedom of expression in the country.
The National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee, which unveiled the proposal on its website earlier this month, is seeking to ban garments and symbols considered “detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese nation” – phrasing often used to denote patriotism, or lack of.
The wording of the draft amendment is reminiscent of language used by Beijing to rein in free speech at home or to hit back at perceived slights by foreign countries and businesses.
It follows a series of clampdowns on personal style in recent years, including broadcast regulations aimed at banishing artists with “effeminate styles” from shows and an ongoing crackdown on tattoos.
If passed, the revised law would make it illegal to “wear or force others to wear” offending items in public places — though the draft document did not specify what type of garments might be outlawed. Transgressors could face detention of up to 15 days and fines of 5,000 yuan ($681).
The draft amendment also targets speech, and would prohibit “producing, disseminating, publicizing, and disseminating articles or remarks” thought to damage China’s “spirit.”
The rules are proposed amendments to the country’s Public Security Administration Punishment Law, which came into force in 2006. The existing measures already give police the power to detain suspects for weeks over a wide range of crimes, from vandalism to public order offenses.
China’s rubber-stamp legislature said it will gather public feedback on the proposal throughout September.
Online, some Chinese social media users expressed concern and called on others to oppose the draft. Several legal scholars have also questioned the implicit vagaries of the proposed amendment and the absence of specific guidelines.
“Who will confirm the spirit of the Chinese nation, and by what procedures?” wrote constitutional studies professor Tong Zhiwei, from East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo.
“If (the Standing Committee) passes this article according to the current draft, it will inevitably lead to law enforcement and the judiciary arresting and convicting people based on their leaders’ will, which will cause endless harm,” he warned.
Criminal law professor Lao Dongyan, from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, meanwhile said the law could amount to an infringement of people’s rights.
“State power directly interferes in the field of individual citizens’ daily clothing, which is obviously an overreaching intervention,” she wrote on Weibo.
Lao also expressed concern that the amendment could fuel extreme nationalism and “may intensify antagonism with some countries, putting (our country in) a passive position diplomatically.”
A brush with rising nationalism
The proposed amendment comes at a time when clothing choices have become increasingly political in today’s China, especially when it comes to Japanese clothing.
The growing “Hanfu” movement, which sees people sporting the kind of traditional garments worn in China before the Qing dynasty, is widely seen as reflection of growing nationalism among the country’s youth.
Meanwhile, traditional Japanese clothes, such as kimonos, have come under fire as nationalist sentiment against Japan surges.
Last August, a Chinese anime fan said she was detained by police after she posed for photos wearing a kimono — traditional Japanese dress — in the eastern city of Suzhou.
The woman, whose cosplay look was inspired by the Japanese manga series “Summer Time Rendering”, was later the subject of widespread debate on Chinese social media, with some users arguing that her outfit was unpatriotic.
A similar 2019 incident, in which university security guards were filmed attacking a man wearing a kimono, also sparked heated online debate in China over the country’s easily stoked anti-Japanese sentiment.
In the wake of this month’s draft amendment, one Weibo user questioned whether cosplayers or kimono-clad employees of Japanese restaurants might fall afoul of the proposed rules.
“The law should at least spell out the exact symbols that will be banned and what will be allowed,” he wrote.
Posting on Chinese messaging platform WeChat, another social media user asked whether suits, which he described as an embodiment of “Western capitalism,” would be permitted. “Why don’t we wear Chinese tunic suits or Hanfu?” he asked.
CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed reporting.