China may ban clothes that hurt people’s feelings

Source: NYT (9/11/23)
China May Ban Clothes That Hurt People’s Feelings. People Are Outraged.
A proposal evokes memories of 1980s China, when opening up to the world set off a debate over flared pants and men with long hair, what the party called “weird attire.”
By Li Yuan

An illustration with people dressed in colorful clothes and costumes standing before a man dressed in a security uniform with a pair of red scissors behind his back.

Credit…Xinmei Liu

In the 1980s, people in China could land themselves in trouble with the government for their fashion choices.
Flared pants and bluejeans were considered “weird attire.” Some government buildings barred men with long hair and women wearing makeup and jewelry. Patrols organized by factories and schools cut flared pants and long hair with scissors.

It was the early days of China’s era of reform and opening up. The Communist Party was loosening its tight control over society little by little, and the public was pushing the limits of self-expression and individualism. The battle over the height of women’s heels and the length of men’s hair embodied the struggle.

Now the government is proposing amendments to a law that could result in detention and fines for “wearing clothing or bearing symbols in public that are detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese people and hurt the feelings of Chinese people.” What could be construed as an offense wasn’t specified.

The plan has been widely criticized, with Chinese legal scholars, journalists and businesspeople voicing their concerns over the past week. If it goes into effect, they argue, it could give the authorities the power to police anything they dislike. It would also be a big step backward in the public’s relationship with the government.

“In Chinese history, the times when clothing and hairstyles were given significant attention often corresponded to ‘bad moments in history,’ ” someone using the name Zhang Sanfeng wrote on the social media platform WeChat. “The introduction of the amendments didn’t come from nothing. It’s a response to some strange sentiments emerging in our society.” The article was widely circulated before being purged by censors.

A woman, wearing a striped sweater, trying on jeans in Tianjin, China, in 1987 as three other women look on.

Workers trying on jeans at a factory in Tianjin in 1987. The loosening of clothing norms was critical to China’s opening up to the West. Credit…Imago/Alamy

Under the rule of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, the government has been fixated on control — how people think, what they say online and now, what they wear.

China has built a surveillance state with modern technologies, censoring the news media and social media extensively, even banning displays of tattoos and men wearing earrings on phone and TV screens. The ideological straitjacket is closing in on the private sphere. Personal choices like what to wear are increasingly subject to the scrutiny of the police or overzealous pedestrians.

In July, an older man on a bus berated a young woman, on her way to a cosplay exposition — where people dress up as characters from movies, books, TV shows and video games — for wearing a costume that could be considered Japanese style. A security guard at a shopping mall last month turned away a man who was dressed like a samurai. Last year, the police in the eastern city of Suzhou temporarily detained a woman for wearing a kimono.

These episodes were related to anti-Japanese sentiment instigated by the Chinese government. But the confrontations go beyond that.

Last month in Beijing, security guards cracking down on expressions of gay pride stopped people dressed in rainbow-themed clothes from entering a concert featuring the Taiwanese singer Zhang Huimei, better known as A-Mei. Also in August, people filed complaints about a concert by the Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai because her fans displayed rainbow lights and some of the male fans dressed in what was described as “flamboyant” female clothing. Just last week the police in Shenzhen scolded a man who was livestreaming in a miniskirt. “A man wearing a skirt in public, do you think you’re positive energy?!” the police yelled at the man.

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