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“We follow reason, not the law”: disavowing the law in rural China

Pia, Andrea E. (2016) “We follow reason, not the law”: disavowing the law in rural China. Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 39 (2). pp. 276-293. ISSN 1081-6976

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Identification Number: 10.1111/plar.12194


Recent debates about the moral climate in China have focused on its citizens' purported loss of traditional values and interest in the public good. According to such views, Chinese society, and in particular its countryside, is now affected by a moral vacuum – the absence of a moral compass that could lead citizens' public behavior to contribute to the nation's greater good. Wedding the "moral vacuum" argument, the current Chinese government is reforming its judicial system with the aim of making it more accessible to its citizenry. The idea is that in the absence of shared moral values, the law and legal rights could provide new forms of ethical bonding between individuals and the collectivity. Widely supported by Chinese legal scholars, this new approach envisions legal mediation as a principled vehicle to bring the law to the countryside. Disproving the above narrative, this paper discusses how in rural Yunnan the law and legal rights come to be seen as instruments of collective disenfranchisement. The ethnography here presented reveals two things. First, that Yunnanese rural society is best described as enjoying a moral "plenum", not a "vacuum". During mediation, legal norms, communist values and traditional moral principles appear to be equally valid normative sources from which to draw on in the attempt to redress grievances. Secondly, that Chinese law, in the form of temporary use rights to local resources, is actively ousting out alternative regimes of resource management that are predicated on local villagers' participation in and responsibility for the public good [legal mediation, public good, Chinese law, rural protests, popular participation].

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2015 American Anthropological Association
Divisions: Anthropology
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
K Law > K Law (General)
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Date Deposited: 22 Oct 2015 13:49
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2020 07:24

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