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Mobilizing the Law in China: “Informed Disenchantment” and the Development of Legal Consciousness

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This article critically examines the development of legal consciousness among legal aid plaintiffs in Shanghai. It is based on 16 months of research at a large legal aid center and in-depth interviews with 50 plaintiffs. Chinese legal aid plaintiffs come to the legal process with high expectations about the possibility of protecting their rights; however, they also have only a vague and imprecise knowledge of legal procedure and their actual codified rights. Through this process of legal mobilization, plaintiffs' legal consciousness changes in two separate dimensions: changes in one's feelings of efficacy and competency vis-à-vis the law, and changes in one's perception/evaluation of the legal system. Put another way, the first dimension is “How well can I work the law?” and the second is “How well does the law work?” In this study I observe positive changes in feelings of individual efficacy and competency that are combined with more negative evaluations/perceptions of the legal system in terms of its fairness and effectiveness. The positive feelings of efficacy and voice provided by the legal process encourage labor dispute plaintiffs in the post-dispute period to plan new lawsuits and to help friends and relatives with their legal problems. Disenchantment with the promises of the legal system does not lead to despondency, but to more critical, informed action. This study provides new evidence on the nature of China's developing legal system with a focus on the social response to the state-led “rule of law” project.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Michigan

Publication date: 01 December 2006

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