Street as Courtroom: State Accommodation of Labor Protest in South China


  • We acknowledge the financial support provided by a GRF research grant (CityU 142209) from the Hong Kong Government for Xin He, and a seed grant provided by the Center for Studies of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine for Yang Su. An earlier version of this article was delivered by Xin He at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Columbia Law School; NYU Law School; the Comparative Law and Economics Forum 2009; and the 2009 Harvard-Stanford International Junior Faculty Forum. The authors are grateful for the comments from the workshops. Randall Peerenboom, Michael Dowdle, Eric Feldman, Carroll Seron, Sidney Tarrow, Shizheng Feng, and anonymous reviewers of the Review provided valuable suggestions on earlier drafts. Warmest thanks go to the officials and judges who kindly agreed to be interviewed. Please address correspondence to Xin He, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, 83 Tat Chee Ave, Kowloon, Hong Kong; e-mail:


Drawing on data collected from district-level governments, this article studies how the Chinese state responds to labor protests in South China. It examines both the internal logic and operational patterns of the state response involving the local courts and an assortment of government agencies. Internal documents and interviews reveal an emerging mode of state reaction. In the context of protest, the courts and related government agencies engage protesters on the street, which often grants a favorable resolution. This “street as courtroom” is a result of the weak capacity of the legal system coupled with a government-wide campaign to build a “harmonious society.” These findings compel researchers to reconsider the institutional boundaries of the prototypical court, the outcome of social protest, and the appropriate role of the courts in China.