Not even armed police could keep middle-age nude sunbathers from Dadonghai Beach in Sanya, a tropical resort in south China, last weekend. But the police could instill a sense of caution, as evidenced by photos published across China's state media that showed those sunbathers going about their business in Speedos lowered to their thighs ("cunning half mast," tweeted Chris Buckley of the New York Times), ready to raise them at the first sight of law enforcement.
They had reason to take care: Since February, those armed police in Sanya have enjoyed authority to detain nude sunbathers for up to 10 days. It's a harsh punishment and -- perhaps predictably -- it has helped to transform those bathers into a recurring media phenomenon among a Chinese public always inclined to favor the underdog against a reflexively hard-line government.
Of course, when China is facing an economic slowdown, a growing terrorist threat and dangerous tensions with many if not most of its neighbors, nude sunbathers are hardly a life or death matter. But what the sunbathers lack in consequence, they certainly make up for as symbols of nonconformity in a culture that's increasingly permissive in private while the government remains publicly intolerant of deviations from an imposed norm.
In February, during the most intense crackdown on the nude sunbathers, Hu Xujian, editor of the state-owned Global Times newspaper, hinted at this tension in a pseudonymous nude sunbathing commentary that -- by its mere existence in the hard-line newspaper -- speaks to the level of attention the issue had gained:
The appearance of nude sunbathing is a likely result of influence from Western culture and lifestyles. China has gradually accepted many Western cultural norms, such as being a model and girls wearing bikinis. Is it possible that someday nude sunbathing will also be accepted?
Hu thinks it's possible, but not any time soon.
There is a process in which imported cultural habits will have to confront Chinese traditional philosophies and customs, in which sex-related customs are especially stubborn.
In all likelihood the Chinese discovered nude sunbathing long before the arrival of the bikini (alas, literature on the history of the subject is thin). In modern times, sunbathers first shed their clothes at Dadonghai in 2002, according to Chinese media. They numbered less than 10, and their purpose was medicinal. At the time, Sanya was developing rapidly, yet it was still possible for a nudist to soak in the sun with relative privacy. But within a decade that would change as Sanya became one of China's most popular beach destinations. By the time Chinese New Year 2014 arrived, there were 500 nude sunbathers on Dadonghai Beach during peak hours, generating predictable (and understandable) complaints from some of the more than 700,000 tourists who visited Sanya during the holiday.
The lockups began soon after, with a 58-year-old man who claimed his doctor ordered sunbathing in the buff to deal with his "depression, cardiovascular disease and hyperthyroidism." Why he couldn't do that in a swimsuit is unclear. Nonetheless, China Daily on Tuesday quoted Feng Qiankun, another patient, as saying that 400 psoriasis patients visit Sanya during peak travel seasons and "if they do not sunbathe their private parts regularly, they will not be able to walk."
Sanya is having none of it (and who can blame officials there): As of Sunday, it had increased beach patrols, handed out informational fliers, took pictures of violators (to what end, the media doesn't say), and installed surveillance cameras. So far, at least two sunbathers have been detained.
Such extreme measures may please local law enforcement and tourists with a more conservative notion of sightseeing, but online they've inspired little more than contempt as an overreaction. "If you can't stop them, why not divert them?" asked a Beijing writer via Sina Weibo during the worst of the Chinese New Year crackdown. "We should be able to satisfy the needs of the minority while protecting the majority." Yet, as the commentator surely knows, as long as Chinese officials insist on dealing with even minor problems by autocratic means, those minority rights will be trampled. South China's nude sunbathers are just the most recent victims.
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