Disavowing the Law and Engaging Politics in Rural China

By Andrea E. Pia – PhD Candidate, LSE

This month, APLA is proud to present a column by the winner of the 2014 Graduate Student Paper Prize, Andrea E. Pia, a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics. Look out for forthcoming announcements about the 2015 competition, and start polishing your papers! —The Editors.

ARCHIVES (OLD PHOTO DATABASE)Photo by Asian Development Bank.
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A few months after my arrival in a drought-prone agricultural community in the south-west of China where I conducted 16 months of fieldwork between September 2011 and December 2013, the local authorities began preparing for the construction of a new government compound. The land being reclaimed – almost 80 mu or 13 acres – had previously been farmed by eight families. The new compound was to cost the local and county governments almost 4 million renminbi, and aimed to provide shelter for 250 government officials and their families.

The day construction was to begin, the villagers’ opposition to the project was made public. That day I exited my residence and was surprised by a huge crowd – more than one hundred men, women, and children – silently stationed in front of the main construction site. One hundred meters to their right a grader, a bulldozer and a number of other pieces of heavy equipment were patiently lined up along the motorway, facing the toll gate. The sight of the waiting land-trampling machines gave the scene a stillness fraught with unvoiced expectation. People stood hand in pocket with somewhat dumbfounded looks, all the time jostling around in an effort to find the best angle from which to see what was about to happen. Dotting the assembly with their red helmets were the construction workers, who smoked carelessly and chit-chatted, unimpressed by the large crowd.

A ring of police troopers was in place around crowd. Outnumbering the civilians almost two to one, they watched the crowd alertly, stopping newcomers from joining in. Eventually, the grader arrived at its final destination. Its first move would have been to unload a load of massive stones on the paddy field right behind the crowd. Then something happened. A woman broke away from the crowd, walking slowly towards the vehicle. Looking straight into the eyes of the man piloting the grader, she climbed the vehicle without opposition, reaching for the cabin. Face to face with the pilot, she exchanged a few words with him, apparently scolding him and trying to discourage the man from completing his work. A moment later, the lady turned to the crowd and raising her voice declared, “This land earns me 2000 kuai a year!” The assembly stood silent.

The vehicle was then surrounded by policemen, who asked the woman to get off the cabin and to refrain from creating further nuisance. In a few moments, the public protest was over. Policemen explained in a dry tone that the requisition was carried out according to the law and that villagers should not take sides with what ultimately were nothing more than a small group of lawbreakers (fanfa de ren). Unable to talk with the “lawbreakers,” I left.

Many commentators, within and outside China, are currently describing the country as a cradle of dissent and unruliness In this ongoing debate, it not just rural villagers who are considered “lawbreakers”, but rather a whole normative tradition of civic virtues is being put in question. Whatever section of the Chinese society one wants to look at, social unrest seems to be triggered by a diffuse sense of pervasive amorality and unscrupulousness. Cases of official malpractice and corruption hit the headlines on a daily basis. State-owned construction companies have courted controversy by unilaterally and coercively carrying out land expropriation, including the relocation of entire neighborhoods, for the mere sake of profit. The mainstream narrative emerging from public debate is that in contemporary China no time-honored, collectively-cherished normative order has remained sufficiently intact to guide individual or collective behavior.

In response to this narrative, Xi Jinping’s administration (which came into power in 2012) has put a renewed emphasis on the “rule of law” (fazhi). The Xi administration hopes that a more effective and more accessible legal system can allow the Party-State to regulate public life in the absence of shared ethical principles. Legal third-party mediation is gaining currency as a instrument to solve day-to-day grievances – from issues involving women’s and minority rights to petty crimes and even the management of local water infrastructures – and to “harmonize” (hexiehua) the countryside. My ethnographic research however, problematizes the notion that the popularization of such legal remedies is helping locals to peacefully solve their conflicts. Quite the contrary.

During the days that followed the public protest described above, I probed my interlocutors for the reasons behind it. A teacher and part-time farmer commented: “You have to understand that the requisition was lawful (an falü). It is because of the temporary use of land (zanyongquan). What could that possibly mean? The Law in China is another way for the government to make a profit. There’s nothing to be gained in taking the case to the court, they are just another branch of the government (zhengfu de zhidu).” Ultimately, the protesters took no legal action against the local government, precisely because they understood the legal system to connive in the ongoing disenfranchisement of rural communities.

Challenging the overarching narrative – one that suggests that citizens’ unruliness could be done away with by familiarizing them with the law – my work looks at how the Chinese legal reforms are producing interesting unintended consequences, including in grassroots and participatory politics. Ironically, as legal reforms come into the countryside to legitimize rather than undermine local power plays, their implementation can be seen as exacerbating rather than “harmonizing” a public skepticism about the law. In particular, my ethnography shows how legally-framed and state-managed land development projects lead local people to actively disavow the law and encourage them to look for alternative political practices of accountability. My interlocutors do not merely organize dissent against the government as in the protest I witnessed, but come up with alternative counter-management practices to manage local resources and to run local affairs. Ironically, it is through legal mediation itself that civic ideals of public participation and common good are discursively and practically assembled. My research explores what these ideals and practices might be and how they are used politically.

Please send ideas for future columns to the contributing editors, Leo Coleman at Coleman.514@osu.edu and Allison Fish at aefish@ucdavis.edu.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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