Above the Roof, Beneath the Law: Perceived Justice behind Disruptive Tactics of Migrant Wage Claimants in China


  • Xin He,

  • Lungang Wang,

  • Yang Su

  • We acknowledge the financial support from a GRF grant of the Hong Kong Government. Lei Guang's reading of an earlier version contributed much improvement. We are also grateful for the comments of the editors and anonymous reviewers of the Review. Special thanks go to the Chinese officials and migrant workers who kindly agreed to be interviewed.

Please direct all the correspondence to Xin He, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong; email: lwxin@cityu.edu.hk.


The way in which citizens in developing countries conceptualize legality is a critical but understudied question for legal consciousness and legal mobilization studies. Drawing on participatory observations and extensive interviews from western China, this article explores the subjective interpretations of migrant wage claimants on law and justice behind their disruptive actions. Their perception of justice differs starkly from what the law stipulates as target, evidence and proper procedures. Who shall be held responsible? What constitutes evidence? When shall they be paid? How much? Their perceptions also differ from the attitude “against the law” found among members from disadvantaged social groups in the United States. The Chinese case of legal perception is shaped by the moral precepts ingrained in the culture, and more importantly, by the lopsided relationship between migrant workers and the political and business elite. It thus points to the daunting barriers in channeling the ever-growing number of social conflicts into court.