Cage for the Birds: On the Social Transformation of Chinese Law, 1999–2019

In: China Law and Society Review
Author: Sida Liu1
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  • 1 Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, Toronto, , Canada,
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In his book on legal reform in China after Mao, Stanley B. Lubman adopted the metaphor “bird in a cage” to describe the status of Chinese law at the turn of the twenty-first century. This article offers some general reflections on the social transformation of Chinese law since 1999, with the objective of explaining (1) how the legal bird has become a cage, and (2) how this new legal cage has been used to trap birds in Chinese society. It first traces the transformation of the legal bird into a cage in China’s reform era and then tells the stories of four species of birds currently confined in the legal cage, namely, hawks (state officials), crows (rights activists), sparrows (netizens), and ostriches (ordinary citizens). Laws related to the four species are concerned with combating corruption, political stability, internet control, and everyday life, respectively. By focusing on the four species of birds in the legal cage, this article offers a fresh understanding of how law interacts with various individuals and social groups in Chinese society and a sociolegal explanation of the social transformation of China’s legal system from 1999 to 2019.

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