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Commentary: Why is Beijing sensitive about clothes that ‘hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation’?

SINGAPORE: China’s push to revise its public security law in late August has generated heated debate in the country. One of the proposed additions, if passed, would allow law enforcers to punish people who wear clothing or symbols in public that “undermine the spirit” or “hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation”.

Critics say that such a law would be unnecessarily and unacceptably intrusive in private life. They challenge the proposal by asking who decides whether the feelings of the Chinese people are hurt and what standard should be used to make such a judgment.

At the same time, some netizens have shown strong support for the legal amendment on social media channels such as Weibo.

There have been recent controversial incidents over the clothing of Chinese citizens. In March, videos of a groomsman from central China donning a replica of the Japanese military uniform from World War II circulated online, sparking outrage from Chinese netizens and condemnation from local government officials. The backlash was understandable as the outfit evoked painful memories from China’s history.

A more debatable incident happened in August last year, where a Chinese woman was detained in Suzhou by the police for wearing a kimono, a traditional Japanese garment, in public.

More consequentially, a commercial street in Dalian featuring Japanese culture, architecture and cuisine was closed soon after it began operations in September 2021 due to nationwide criticism.

THE DELICATE TASK OF DEFINING UNLAWFUL BEHAVIOUR

These incidents demonstrate the delicate task faced by Chinese authorities to demarcate, reasonably, what constitutes as behaviours that may hurt national dignity.

In this regard, the ambiguous nature of the proposed law, which may go beyond Japanese cultural presence in China and apply to items originating from the West, could run into problems such as arbitrary interpretation by law enforcers and selective implementation on the ground. This poses further challenges for China’s rule of law.

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In addition, the law may fuel unhealthy levels of nationalism among some segments of the public, and will polarise Chinese society if lawmakers fail to demarcate what would constitute as a transgression.

Members of the public are also worried that the additions are a sign of stricter societal controls to come, a trajectory that has been developing in recent years. The Economist reported that more than 92,000 Chinese citizens have already submitted comments on the proposed amendments, as China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress, solicits public opinion from Sep 1 to 30.

The participation suggests that Chinese citizens want to have a say in policy decisions, especially on laws that tighten the state’s grip over society. China’s prolonged and intrusive zero-COVID policy, which sparked protests across the country in late 2022, may have also contributed to the increased public interest in policymaking.

UNINTENDED CHALLENGES TO FOREIGN RELATIONS

Domestic concerns aside, Beijing also needs to guard against unintended challenges on its foreign relations. Given the sweeping and nationalistic nature of the proposed law, how would other countries view the proposal? This is especially pertinent, but not limited, to nations burdened by longstanding historical sensitivities with China.

Incidentally, the proposed additions came soon after Beijing condemned Tokyo’s release of wastewater from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant and suspended seafood imports from Japan. This move was criticised by Tokyo and soon after, the Japan embassy alerted Japanese nationals to be cautious and “not speak Japanese loudly unnecessarily” in China.

In this rather sensitive context, China’s proposed law could risk contributing to additional tensions with Japan.

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To the extent that the law may fuel nationalistic sentiments in some segments of the Chinese public, it might also create an atmosphere that is not conducive for cross-cultural and people-to-people exchanges at the society level.

Observers note that the number of international travellers to China has declined significantly, which besides China’s slow post-pandemic opening, may be partly due to worsening relations with the West. The US State Department warned Americans in late June to “reconsider travel (to China) due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans and the risk of wrongful detentions”.

At a time when Beijing is pushing for cross-cultural exchanges globally, Beijing would do well to stop domestic politics at its water’s edge as much as possible. In fact, China has shown willingness to rein in its “wolf warrior” approach to foreign policy in recent times, for instance by the removal of Mr Zhao Lijian as Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. Zhao was one of the most outspoken critics of the West.

TIMING OF PUBLIC SECURITY REFORMS

Beijing’s last amendment to the public security law took effect on Jan 1, 2013, more than a decade ago. While the exact reasons behind Beijing’s current push for new laws are ultimately unclear, it comes at a time where China is grappling with sluggish growth and worryingly high youth unemployment. Economic growth and nationalism are among two of the most examined pillars underpinning the Chinese Communist Party’s regime legitimacy.

At a time when growth is faltering, the timing of the proposed law seems to suggest an attempt to bolster the party’s credentials as a staunch defender of Chinese national pride. But, the growth of nationalistic sentiment may undermine the government’s strenuous efforts in trying to attract and retain foreign investments in China, which may add to the country’s economic challenges.

The proposed additions do not merely criminalise offending attire, but also symbols and comments. Taking a longer view then, the proposed laws reflect the orientation of China’s domestic politics in a new era, where the party is positioned as a vanguard driving China’s rejuvenation as a great nation.

Given considerable public debate and the international stakes involved, it remains to be seen whether Chinese legislators will eventually pass the law or make further amendments to engender some clarity to the proposed additions.

Tiong Wei Jie is PhD student in International Relations, and Li Mingjiang is Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in International Relations at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU

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