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The Trial of Li Zhuang: Chinese Lawyers’ Collective Action against Populism

  • Sida Liu (a1), Lily Liang (a2) and Terence C. Halliday (a3)

The Chinese judicial system has long been influenced by a populist legal ideology that prioritizes public accountability and political legitimacy over professional autonomy. In recent years, however, the Chinese legal profession has begun to mobilize collectively, albeit episodically, to challenge this populism. Drawing on legal documents, interviews, media reports, and online discussions, this paper provides a scholarly analysis of the Li Zhuang case in 2009−11, in which the fate of an individual criminal defence lawyer was linked with the main ideological conflict in China’s legal system and the highest-level political struggles in the Chinese state. It demonstrates that, although populism remains an intimidating force in China’s judicial practice, lawyers, scholars, and other legal professionals may be laying a foundation for collective solidarity to pursue professionalism through their mobilization against populism.

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Financial support for this project is provided by the National Science Foundation (SES-0850432) and the American Bar Foundation. Sida Liu is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Faculty Fellow at the American Bar Foundation. Lily Liang is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Terence C. Halliday is Co-Director of the Center on Law and Globalization, Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation, Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, and Adjunct Professor at the School of Regulation, Justice, and Diplomacy, Australian National University. The authors thank the editors of the Asian Journal of Law and Society and anonymous reviewers for their comments on the manuscript. Earlier versions of the paper were presented at the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford University, and Zhejiang University and received helpful questions from the audiences. Please direct all 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:; Lily Liang, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 8128 William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706; e-mail:; Terence C. Halliday, American Bar Foundation, 750 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail:

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Asian Journal of Law and Society
  • ISSN: 2052-9015
  • EISSN: 2052-9023
  • URL: /core/journals/asian-journal-of-law-and-society
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