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


  • Research for this project was funded by the Fulbright Foundation and the National Science Foundation, Law and Social Science Division (SES #0350664). Bert Kritzer and four reviewers provided helpful suggestions and criticisms that have improved this article. I also wish to thank the audiences at various conferences and meetings who have provided feedback, suggestions, and critiques of this article, including Yale University China Law Center; University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University; University of Virginia; and the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Kevin O'Brien, Sida Liu, Peter Meyers, Jamie Horsley, Stanley Lubman, Pitman Potter, and Margaret Woo read and commented on earlier drafts. I also thank my research partners in China and the legal aid plaintiffs who agreed to tell their stories.

Please address correspondence to Mary E. Gallagher, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, 5700 Haven Hall, 505 South State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109; e-mail:


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.