Chapter 5: Mass disputes and China’s legal system
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Since the late 1970s, China’s legal system has evolved via a process of juridification in which legal norms, institutions and actors have been expanding and playing a more meaningful role in creating social, economic and political regulations. However, abiding hallmarks of this system have been the limited space for legal advocacy and constraints on socio-legal mobilization. Through the prism of mass disputes, this chapter analyzes three phases in the development of China’s socialist, authoritarian legal system from the 1990s to 2018, shaped by alternating waves of political liberalization and repression: (1) a brief period of promoting individual rights to underpin economic reforms in the legalistic phase of the 1990s; (2) during the Hu-Wen administration an emphasis on stability and an effort to atomize mass disputes; and (3) a statist approach permitting the articulation of limited grievances through the procuratorate’s selective initiation of Public Interest Litigation in the spheres of environmental and consumer law. The chapter concludes that, notwithstanding some success in defusing mass grievances, the capacity of China’s authoritarian legal system to resolve collective disputes is fundamentally undermined by the weakness of civil society and a lingering suspicion of NGOs.

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