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Topless Women, Rule Of Law, And Perceptions Of China.

Posted in Legal News

Matt Schivenza‘s always interesting blog has a new post up on nudity (well, sorta) in China, entitled, “Foreign Woman Removes Top At Beach in Qingdao, Causes Major Disturbance.
The post tracks exactly what I was talking about this morning with a client. No, not nudity, but rule of law in China and how so many Americans misunderstand its extent in China and misperceive what China is really like.
Bear with me here as I discuss the rule of law in China as the nudity discussion will follow.
The client with whom I was having this discussion is a very successful and sophisticated international businessperson who has been doing business in China for around five years. He was telling me of how an American competitor of his had gotten into legal troubles and was on the verge of pulling out of China. My client told me he thought his competitor had brought the problems onto his company by believing he could get away with not following Chinese laws. We then talked about how when it comes to China’s laws relating to business, they are actually usually fairly clear and actually usually not all that bad. We both agreed that companies that follow China’s business laws overwhelmingly avoid problems.
But, we both also agreed that what we were discussing had little to nothing to do with China’s non-business laws and little or nothing to do with the corruption. In other words, China’s business laws, as written are good and following them usually insulates you from problems. But, not following them and having the right connections (which damn few foreigners have, despite their thinking otherwise) can oftentimes serve to avoid problems also.
Which all brings me back to nudity and to Matt’s post.
Matt’s post is on a Qingdao newspaper article about the reaction to a Bulgarian blonde who insisted on running around topless in the middle of a hot day at Qingdao’s Number 1 Beach . This is Qingdao’s most popular beach and the last time I was there — in April — it was crowded. The Bulgarian caused quite a stir and gave rise to a local newspaper article, which Matt translated.
The article noted how despite the controversy and approbation by many onlookers, the lack of any law clearly prohibiting the conduct precluded anyone from putting a stop to it:

Shortly thereafter, this reporter went to the beach management office, where he was told by a person responsible that although the beach had encountered topless guests in the past, they had never found one daring to go topless in front of so many people. “There’s nothing we can do about it!”. This reporter was told that in the past several days many residents and guests alike have complained about this matter, but because no clear law exists prohibiting this sort of behavior, beach employees simply could not intervene.

Matt sees all this as proof of the rule of law:

I find this story amusing because a) the Bulgarian woman continued sunbathing topless despite what appears to have been an enormous amount of attention on top of the persistent questioning of the reporter, b) that the supposed ‘moral outrage’ involved didn’t prevent beach-goers from crowding around the woman and taking her photo, and c) that rather than compel the woman to put her top back on, the beach officials were preventing from doing so due to the absence of a clear legal statute regarding these matters. See, China is a nation that respects the rule of law!

To a certain extent, I have to agree. This does not prove there is freedom of political expression and this does not prove bureaucrats do not sometimes act thuggishly, but this does prove that China does have laws that are followed.
This also proves something perhaps even more important. This proves something many of my expat friends in China are always talking about. They say they find it ridiculous that China is viewed as this incredibly oppressive place where the government is spying on you all the time and concerned with your littlest actions. They oftentimes like to tell me that China actually has more freedoms than the United States or England. I am very skeptical of these comparisons, but I certainly concur that individual freedoms in China are given a fairly decent swath, so long as they do not impinge upon the government/party.
What do you think?

  • James

    Those individual liberties that many enjoy in China tend to be most enjoyed by the foreign community. Not to say that Chinese aren’t enjoying a great deal more freedom than before, but in many ways, theirs has been a parallel world to waiguoren. Also, I find that many of these “liberties” tend to be of the variety one might normally associate with an American-style Spring Break on the beach.
    I know that things that few Chinese would dare do seemed, until recently, to be a major part of the foreign diet in China. Assuming that you can berate local authorities because they know no English – actually, many probably still get away with this. Forgetting/Laughing off residency registration. Showing up at the visa authority with an expired visa AND an attitude. Bullying. Drunken hijinks…
    Plus foreigners don’t have to adhere to hukou, and they aren’t very familiar with the “neighborhood watch” associations that are everywhere. We haven’t been subjected to the reform school-style education system, with it’s forced lights out time in the dorms, military-style exercises at dawn, etc. I waited tables while in college, and we never had to start a shift by standing in formation IN PUBLIC while the manager exhorted us to be better waiters, then led us through morning exercises. I bet many foreigners in China now don’t know that it was not long ago that you needed to get your boss’ permission to marry.
    China is a great place, I say this with all sincerity. Many people are giddy – well, giddy with Chinese characteristics, at least – over new found freedoms. But I have lost count of how many times Chinese have remarked to me about the amount of leeway foriegners are given in China, and I agree with them mostly.
    But, perhaps the higher-ups will put the kibosh on that soon. Perhaps. Then we’ll see.

  • dataman85

    Haha, you link to Toyota Venza instead of Matt’s blog.

  • outcast

    Given the large number of people crowding around her and the very few number of people crowding around the beach administrator, I would say the supposed moral outrage really only occured in a small minority.

  • Alistair

    I think china allows for vast personal freedoms that are eroded in western countries by regulation, paternalistic government policy and the sanctity of privacy.
    Indeed, I think that kind of freedom to open a stand, make a sneaky renovation, drive on the wrong side of the road, smoke in an enclosed space or rubbish the neighbourhood commons is absolutely vital for the continued neglect of the loftier, idealistic, freedoms as it is the former type that people truly cherish.
    Discussing voting invites an apathetic shrug but ban smoking in restaurants and there will be a r-volutin.

  • T

    Matches my personal experience – I’ve lived in Europe and the US, and in Shanghai. Of all of these places, Shanghai felt the least oppressive and most free. I have difficulty explaining this back in the US (‘those terrorists/communists/take your pick are just jealous of our freedoms’). I am glad to see I am not the only one who feels thus.

  • Tim

    Back in ’97 when I used to go to this very same beach, the bathing suits were so poorly made that they were completely see-thru once they got wet. That being said, a see-thru bathing suit (at the time) was far more appropriate than going topless and today’s Qingdao women would not, themselves, wear such a poorly constructed suit. Qingdao is, after all, a fairly conservative city.
    Social mores and sexuality are two areas of dramatic change that is often neglected in discussions about China’s rapid development. Value-systems are changing/evolving and many Chinese find the rapid change disconcerting, if not downright frightening. This is a perfect example of how dramatically different individual Chinese have embraced these changes.
    Furthermore, double standards regarding sexuality exist: displays of non-Chinese/Asian woman’s sexuality is considered more acceptable (when was the last time you saw a lingerie store advertising Asian women wearing underwear?) than that of an Asian woman. I suspect that if it was an Asian woman taking off her top, the reaction would be dramatically different with few if any rushing to have their picture taken with her.
    So to get at the question, I see the topless woman in Qingdao less about rule-of-law and more about how China is struggling with the other component that comes with economic development: self-expression.

  • Eurasian Beauty

    She wasn’t Bulgarian. She was half Chinese, half Belgian. The locals were upset more because she looked Chinese and made them collectively look (in their eyes) immoral. Its a “face” issue not a legal issue.

  • http://www.mattschiavenza.com Matt Schiavenza

    Eurasian Beauty,
    Where does it say that she’s half Chinese/half Belgian? The article I translated pretty clearly stated she was from Bulgaria and mentioned no biracial angle at all. Do you have an additional source?
    I agree with your point about how Chinese women are less encouraged to express their sexuality- to a point. Many of the young women I know dress in a similar style than a Western woman might, and you do see some fairly audacious outfits when you hit up a nightclub in China. The bathing suits, even by young women, still seem quite outdated to me.

  • Laobaixing

    They didn’t have any law against it? Couldn’t they just have executed her for hooliganism?

  • Eurasian Beauty

    It got misread by media who wrote about it who weren’t there and then it has evolved into this piece. (Belgium/Bulgaria for example)She’s well known teacher in Qingdao which is where I’m from. Not Bulgarian although she is now very thankful its been misreported. Belgian Father, Chinese mother. She actually got upset with the local Chinese who thought she was Chinese, and started shouting at them they were discriminating against her because they thought she was Chinese but she was actually a foreigner, and said they wouldn’t have insulted her if they knew she had a European passport. An example of how things get blown out of truth from Chinese whispers on blogs. Next time check out your local sources like Qingdao RedStar before coming to conclusions. Otherwise its just blogging sensationalism and untrue rumors.

  • outcast

    So with regards to China’s evolving social mores, where do you see it going and when do you see it arriving at wherever that is?

  • Tim

    @ Eurasian Beauty
    I’m confused, you mean to tell me that she felt entitled to special treatment and was disturbed when she did not receive it because she was mistaken for a local? As a teacher living in Qingdao, I would be surprised she wouldn’t know that public nudity is unacceptable. Your version makes her into a racist who likes to flout local norms.
    @ outcast
    A developed Mainland of the future, I suspect, will look different than Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore; all of which have combined modernity with a stronger link to their cultural heritage than the Mainland. Mainland China is not working on a blank slate but various campaigns to eradicate feudal thinking and behavior from ‘49 to the late 70’s has left a cultural divide between China today and the China of 100 years ago. That radical break in the development of its culture has left a country searching for identity. Resurrecting traditionally culturally important icons, Confucius for example, are important to Mainland Chinese in their effort to define what it means to be Chinese. In an ever-changing, mostly homogeneous environment that is bombarded with foreign goods, knowledge, beliefs and ways of living many mainland Chinese struggle to make sense of it all.
    I don’t know how it will evolve, I am cautiously optimistic (and love watching the changes!) as the Chinese are incredibly resilient but also more progressive than they are generally given credit.

  • outcast

    “Mainland China is not working on a blank slate but various campaigns to eradicate feudal thinking and behavior from ‘49 to the late 70’s has left a cultural divide between China today and the China of 100 years ago.”
    To be fair it was that kind of feudal thinking that turned China into the Sick Man of Asia 100 years ago.
    “I don’t know how it will evolve, I am cautiously optimistic (and love watching the changes!) as the Chinese are incredibly resilient but also more progressive than they are generally given credit.”
    So do you think it will ever become as tolerate of such things as topless sunbathing as Europe, or will it be stuck in the mid 20th century forever?

  • Laobaixing

    “Mainland China is not working on a blank slate but various campaigns to eradicate feudal thinking and behavior from ‘49 to the late 70’s has left a cultural divide between China today and the China of 100 years ago.”
    Ummm… those modernization campaigns were around well before ’49 – see the New Life Movement, New Culture Movement, etc.
    “To be fair it was that kind of feudal thinking that turned China into the Sick Man of Asia 100 years ago.”
    Colonialism might have had something to do with it as well.

  • Now

    This entire comment thread is useless: where is the link to the pics?

  • Troy

    I can tell the police have really lightened up in Guangzhou. When I was there 8 years ago, if they caught someone selling stuff, (cd’s movies, etc.)on the street there would be some yelling, maybe confiscation, and everyone ran away (of course everyone reappeared as soon as the police were gone). As of May 2009, the police politely stand there and tell the street merchant to move on.
    As far as special treatment for foreigners;In the past I remember waking up on a bus at midnight with police walking down the aisle holding sub-machine guns, checking for the National I.D.’s. They totally ignored myself and all the other Caucasians as far as I could see.

  • http://www.dabestofdaweb.com Bob

    I have to admit, the Chinese approach to the law is admirable. Authorities in the United States tend to use their own subjective morality to enforce non-existent laws in the United States or interpretations that stretch the intent of the law severely.

  • Fred54

    I travel to China frequently and as a Caucasian
    the police never look at me twice. My friends there tell me that you can do anything you want in China as long as it doesn’t involve politics. People seem to be a little ruder to each other than here, but I am generally treated like a guest. I behave like a guest so I never have any trouble with anyone. I’m not followed, I know how to spot a tail. I also took a hotel room apart once looking for bugs and none. There is more of a feeling of national pride about “The New China” than here but why not? The only regulatory thing that
    they do there that they don’t seem to do here is ask for your passport when you check into a hotel. All my traveling there is in my friends private cars so my movements aren’t being tracked. There is actually move surveillance here at least on ordinary travelers and citizens.

  • Ld Elon – Elijyah

    She is, and was, not seen as an enemy of the state, hence the reason there’s no law to stop her good natured conduct.

  • H.G.

    …that hasn’t got anything to do with freedom.

  • outcast

    “Colonialism might have had something to do with it as well.”
    Its traditional culture impeded needed changes that would have saved it from colonialism. Foreign agression against it was a symptom of a much greater problem, since the colonial powers were taking advantage of a blustering toothless cat.
    Let’s not forget that China’s attitude at the time hadn’t changed, it was still an imperial power but it no longer had the firepower to backup it up.

  • Vox

    Sounds like Westerners are being punked by the author into believing “Communists are just like you and me!”

  • Doug

    Am I allowed to pray whereever and whenever I like to God in China?

  • KM

    Being asked for a passport when checking into a hotel is very normal. It’s also in European countries and several other Asian countries.

  • philipp

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to stop talking about the rule of law here and call it what it is, rule by law.
    Then this episode is nothing so special anymore. Yes, there are laws, they are a framework for social conduct, but don’t believe for a minute the relevant authorities would have reacted this way if some high ranking cadre would have felt pissed off by the topless woman.

  • michael in shanghai

    I am a male and I am asked to put on my shirt (politely but persistently), by the mindless security guards that patrol the parks in Shanghai, so kinda surprised they allowed this lass to flaunt on the beach. I suspect she must have been very very adamant about not complying and the security just kinda gave up.