Law as a Contested Terrain under Authoritarianism

Ching Kwan Lee, University of California, Los Angeles

Rachel Stern. Environmental Litigation in China: A Study in Political Ambivalence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 310 pp. $99 (cloth).

Waikeung Tam. Legal Mobilization under Authoritarianism: The Case of Post-Colonial Hong Kong. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 234 pp. $95 (cloth).


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Two recent publications, one by Waikeung Tam (Lingnan University) and the other by Rachel Stern (UC Berkeley School of Law), offer refreshing views on law and social change under Chinese authoritarianism, a topic that has been marginalized by both the law and society and China studies literatures. After all, rule of law and state authoritarianism seem like oxymorons, especially in the People’s Republic of China, where the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is enshrined in the Constitution, the country’s highest law. Yet in recent years, a number of studies have spotlighted how ordinary Chinese citizens take the Chinese legal system more seriously than scholars, and these citizens’ collective mobilization of the law has compelled us to rethink the relationship among law, society, and politics. The two newly published monographs discussed here, both of which grew out of doctoral dissertations written around the same time and addressing the same phenomenon—the rise of public interest litigation—reinforce the need for such a perspectival shift. Together they show that the law has become a contested terrain with varying potential for enabling rights activism under different types of state authoritarianism in a single country: in Tam’s case, postcolonial Hong Kong, and in Stern’s case, postsocialist China...