I am happy to post a review of The Politics of Law and Stability in China, a book coauthored by Sue Trevaskes, Elisa Nesossi, Sarah Biddulph and I, which appeared in the latest issue of Alternative Law Journal. Thanks to Gary Lung, a a lawyer in the Civil Justice, Access & Equity Program at Victoria Legal Aid, for his kind review.
As I had ample opportunities to discuss at a recent event in Torino, the theme of how abstract concepts are adopted and what they mean is perhaps one of the most promising areas of research in Chinese studies. I will be posting more on this soon.
Susan Trevaskes, Elisa Nesossi, Flora Sapio and Sarah Biddulph (Eds); Edward Elgar Publishing,
2014; 290pp; UK£72 (hardcover)
The Politics of Law and Stability in China
is a collection of 13 essays that examines the nexus between the law and social stability in contemporary China. Former leader of China Deng Xiaoping once said the Communist Party-state should ‘preserve stability above all other concerns’ (wending yadao yiqie), and social stability has since become a central socio-political concern for China’s governing authorities in the past decades.
The book is divided into three parts to explore how Chinese government adapts its law and legal procedures in order to achieve and maintain social stability and to strike a balance between reaching positive legal outcomes and positive social outcomes behind the country’s rapid economic growth.
Part One of the book focuses on how Chinese authorities manage different types of social disputes. The types of disputes discussed in this part are labour relations disputes, land-taking cases and environmental disputes. Unsurprisingly, these types of disputes usually involve conflicting interests of different stakeholders and often cause social unrest if disputes are not contained at an early stage. The editors and contributors argue that in order to achieve stability imperative, Chinese authorities try to settle disputes by imposing early intervention such as pre-trial mediation and offering large amounts of monetary compensation to the aggrieved parties instead of recognizing their rights and entitlements under the law. These interventions seem to have a short-term effect on social unrest but arguably Chinese authorities still fail to address the real underlying issues that caused the social instability. These issues include the disparity in income distribution, underdeveloped welfare system, social inequalities, corruption and access to justice.
Part Two explores the interaction of stability imperative and the lawmaking process in China. Benjamin van Rooij’s chapter discusses the example of how China developed a more comprehensive and stronger regulation relating to food safety after the Melamine milk incident in 2008. By developing stricter law and regulations, China is trying to contain any potential social unrest on one hand and regain the public trust in the law on the other.
Susan Trevaskes’ chapter in Part Two discusses the changes in China’s criminal law reforms and death sentencing policy in order to reach social stability and harmony. It examines how the Chinese authorities try to standardise decision-making in courts nationwide by handing down certain guiding cases to ‘guide’ judges on how to make decisions in death sentencing cases. It is also interesting to see how the death sentencing policy has changed from the stricter ‘strike hard’ ethos to the more lenient ‘kill fewer’ ethos to achieve a more stable and harmonious society.
The final part of the book discusses how typically Western concepts like transparency and accountability have been adopted by the Chinese legal-political system to support the line of stability and legitimacy maintenance. The Chinese government and the Chinese courts also rely on concepts like ‘social management innovation’ and the rule of law in order to achieve social harmony and stability. As Elisa Nesossi points out, ‘judges should not only apply the law strictly but, through their work, they should also be able to re-adjust and manage social relationships’. (p 225) As a lawyer in Australia, it is hard to imagine how the legal system would be if judges are required to exercise their judicial duties subject to some greater political tasks or guidance imposed by the governing authorities.
Overall, the editors and contributors of this book have presented an impressive work that would appeal to lawyers, scholars, students in political science. Those who are interested in Chinese studies will also be attracted to the book, in light of its attention to China’s obsession about the ideas of ‘Stability Maintenance’ and ‘Harmonious Society’. This volume gives its readers a real insight into the causes of social unrest and instability in contemporary China and prompts the reader to consider the final question posed by the editors – whether China’s changes in its law and legal practices, in response to the stability imperative, actually challenge law’s legitimacy. A good question when the results seem to contradict the Party-state’s idea of ‘governing the country according to law’.
GARY LUNG is a lawyer in the Civil Justice, Access & Equity Program at Victoria Legal Aid. He has a particular interest in social justice and human rights issues.