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‘Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people’ could be punished by jail time

China flag. (Unsplash)
September 10, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

“Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.” 

It’s a stock phrase frequently used by Chinese officials and state media to criticize speech or actions by outsiders that Beijing disapproves of. 

But now it could be turned against the Chinese people themselves.

Under a proposed amendment to the Public Security Administration Law, wearing the wrong T-shirt or complaining about China online could lead to a fine of up to 5,000 yuan (US$680) or 15 days in jail.

The law doesn’t specify what kind of acts might do such a thing, but does warn that “denying the deeds” of revolutionary heroes and martyrs or defacing their public memorials would count. 

China already has in place laws banning insults to revolutionary heroes and martyrs, as well as to the national anthem, its soldiers and police force.

“The wearing in public places … of clothing and symbols that damage the spirit of the Chinese nation, or that hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” could land perpetrators with up to 10 days in detention and fines of up to 5,000 yuan, according to draft amendments currently open for public consultation and viewable on the website of the National People’s Congress.

“Items or remarks that contain sentiments about the Chinese nation,” will also be banned, as will “producing, disseminating or publicizing products that are detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese nation or harmful to it.”

‘Can we criticize football?’

Online comments took aim at the lack of specifics in the draft, wondering if “watching anime,” “riding a roller-coaster,” or “wearing a suit and tie” would count as violations of the law.

“Can we still criticize Chinese football in future?” one wanted to know. “So Chinese people should just all wear Mao suits now,” said another.

“If [someone] wearing clothes hurts your feelings, then you’re just too fragile,” commented another, while one social media user quipped: “Take one bit of KFC and I’ll report you!”

Others worried that praising any other country could amount to hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, or nation.

“This will probably be used to label people traitors or rebels,” said one comment, although some pro-government comments said the law could help fight “infiltration,” a current preoccupation of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Touchy topics

Taiwan-based Chinese dissident Gong Yujian said the amendments tie in with the Chinese government’s reaction to the release of wastewater from Japan’s damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, and that actions linked to three places – Japan, the United States and Taiwan – are the most likely to trigger accusations under the law, if passed.

For example, in 2022 sports brand Li-Ning apologized after some of its fashion designs were likened to Japanese military uniforms.

“When it comes to who hurts the feelings of the Chinese people most, Japan is in top place, the United States is second, and Taiwan is in third place,” Gong said. 

“These [proposed] rules continue to incite nationalistic sentiment in China, as well as placing strict controls on people’s clothing, food, housing, and transportation methods,” he said. 

“It proves once and for all that China under the totalitarian rule of Xi Jinping is heading pell-mell into another Cultural Revolution, the end result of which will be zero freedom for the Chinese people,” he said.

Room for ambiguity

The proposed amendments come in the wake of recent legislation targeting foreign entities and individuals in China that includes recent amendments to the Counterespionage Law, and a Foreign Relations Law.

Wu Se-Chih of Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Policy Association said the rules seem to be part of the same political campaign by the government.

“They want to cut off any connection between what the Chinese Communist Party identifies as hostile foreign forces and the Chinese people,” Wu said. “It is somewhat related to the anti-Japanese populist sentiment triggered by the recent discharge of nuclear wastewater by Japan.”

He said there was plenty of room for ambiguity and doubt in the new rules, and the extent to which they would be implemented, if passed.

“Is Chinese national pride destroyed just by wearing clothing referencing Japanese, American or other foreign cultures, or by eating in Japanese restaurants, or by driving American, European or Japanese cars?” Wu said.

“If they replace liking foreign cultures with anti-Japanese or anti-U.S. sentiment, won’t that harm [China’s] foreign relations? And wouldn’t that also hurt the feelings of the Chinese people?” he said.

Wu said he believes the insistence on whipping up nationalistic sentiment is linked to authoritarian and totalitarian rule, and also acts as a distraction from China’s current economic woes.