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Political Liberalism and Political Embeddedness: Understanding Politics in the Work of Chinese Criminal Defense Lawyers


  • Sida Liu,

  • Terence C. Halliday

  • Financial support for this project is provided by the National Science Foundation (SES-0850432) and the American Bar Foundation. We would like to thank Lily Liang for her excellent research assistance in data analysis and writing. The fieldwork benefited from the extraordinary work of 13 research assistants from China University of Political Science and Law, whose names have to be omitted for their protection. Earlier versions of the article were presented at the Law & Society Association 2010 Annual Meeting; the American Sociological Association 2010 Annual Meeting; the Chinese Politics Workshop and Politics, Culture, Society (PCS) Brownbag at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the Workshop on Chinese Legal Reform at Yale Law School; and the East Asian Workshop at the University of Chicago. We received helpful comments from the participants, especially Paul Gewirtz, Chad Goldberg, Lucien Karpik, Leah Larson-Rabin, Chaeyoon Lim, Melanie Manion, Pamela Oliver, Jeffrey Prescott, and Erik Olin Wright. Please address correspondence to Sida Liu, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 8128 William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706; e-mail:; or to Terence C. Halliday, Center on Law and Globalization, American Bar Foundation, 750 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail:


This article examines the meanings of politics in everyday legal practice using the case of Chinese criminal defense lawyers. Based on 194 in-depth interviews with criminal defense lawyers and other informants in 22 cities across China, we argue that lawyers’ everyday politics have two faces: on the one hand, lawyers potentially can challenge state power, protect citizen rights, and pursue proceduralism in their daily work; on the other hand, they often have to rely on political connections with state agencies to protect themselves and to solve problems in their legal practice. The double meanings of politics—namely, political liberalism and political embeddedness—explain the complex motivations and coping tactics that are frequently found in Chinese lawyers’ everyday work. Our data show that the Chinese criminal defense bar is differentiated along these two meanings of politics into five clusters of lawyers: progressive elites, pragmatic brokers, notable activists, grassroots activists, and routine practitioners. They also suggest that a principal manifestation of political lawyering is not merely short-term mobilization or revolutionary struggle against arbitrary state power, but also an incremental everyday process that often involves sophisticated tactics to manage interests that often conflict.