Authoritarian Legality in China: Law, Workers, and the State

The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China

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Authoritarian Legality in China: Law, Workers, and the State
By Mary E. Gallagher
Cambridge University Press, 2017
264 pp.
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The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China
By Ya-Wen Lei
Princeton University Press, 2017
304 pp.
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China’s 2008 Labor Contract Law and 2011 Social Insurance Law set high labor-protection standards for factories and for local governments that had powered their export-driven economies with cheap, temporary migrant labor from rural areas. Yet the central government has not enforced the laws, empowered the official labor union to enforce them, or tolerated the formation of independent unions. Instead, workers can pursue their rights only by undertaking mediation or arbitration or by suing in court. Gallagher argues that the government’s purpose in providing “expansive rights that are weakly protected” is to use workers as a “strategic lever” to force enterprises and local authorities to take on higher labor and welfare costs without giving workers the tools to create fundamental change. As is true elsewhere in the Chinese system, officials use laws more to articulate policy goals than to regulate behavior. But such “authoritarian legality” has created its own inconsistency: workers expect more protection than they actually get, so labor protests have increased. The regime now faces a choice between giving workers more power to fight for their interests or cutting back on legal protections. Gallagher says the government is considering the latter option.

Lei likewise explores what she calls the “authoritarian dilemma of modernization.” Even the Chinese Communist Party’s idiosyncratic version of the rule of law must be administered by legal professionals, and even government-dominated mass media require professional journalists; those are two groups that tend to have their own ideas about how to serve the public. The government’s legal-education campaigns have made citizens more conscious of their rights, and Internet portals such as Sohu and Sina have created new networks of discourse. The result has been waves of public criticism on the Internet—which authorities refer to as “public opinion incidents”—in which citizens make use of legal concepts to criticize censorship, corruption, unsafe consumer products, and environmental pollution. As in labor relations, so, too, on the Web and on social media: the government struggles to keep control over social forces it has created. 

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