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Justice from Above or Below? Popular Strategies for Resolving Grievances in Rural China*

  • Ethan Michelson


Research on rural conflict in China suggests that village leaders are sources of trouble and obstacles to justice and that aggrieved villagers have more trust in and receive more satisfactory redress from higher-level solutions than from local solutions. In contrast to this account of “justice from above,” evidence presented in this article from a 2002 survey of almost 3,000 households supports an alternative theory of “justice from below.” According to this latter theory, the social costs associated with appealing to higher authorities, including the legal system, for help with local disputes tend both to discourage the escalation of disputes and to produce relatively disappointing experiences and outcomes when such routes are taken. Survey respondents indicated that local solutions, often with the involvement of village leaders, were far more desirable and effective than higher-level solutions.



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* The survey data on which this article is based were collected with the generous financial support of the Ford Foundation (Beijing); for this I owe a special thanks to Phyllis Chang and Titi Liu. I would also like to thank Feng Shizheng, Guo Xinghua, Han Heng, Li Lulu, Liu Jingming, Lu Yilong, Shen Weiwei, Wang Ping and Wang Xiaobei for making the data collection possible. I am grateful to Joshua Klugman and Jing Tong at Indiana University for their research assistance. Feedback and suggestions from Gardner Bovingdon, Lijun Chen, Neil Diamant, Sara Friedman, David James, Pierre Landry, James Lee, Sida Liu, Kevin O'Brien, Phillip Parnell, Brian Powell, Benjamin Read, Frank Upham, Jianxun Wang and Dali Yang greatly improved this article. Of course I remain solely responsible for all remaining defects and omissions.

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The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
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