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Lawyers, State Officials and Significant Others: Symbiotic Exchange in the Chinese Legal Services Market

  • Sida Liu (a1)


In China's legal services market, lawyers face strong competition from a variety of alternative legal service providers. Based upon 256 interviews with law practitioners and public officials, three years of ethnographic work on a professional internet forum, and extensive archival research, this article develops a theory of symbiotic exchange to analyse the competition between lawyers, basic-level legal workers and other practitioners in ordinary legal work, as well as how the state regulates these competing occupational groups. It argues that the dynamics of professional competition in the Chinese legal services market can be explained by the symbiotic exchange between law practitioners in the market and their regulatory agencies and officials in the state. Chinese lawyers have a weak market position because their exchange with the state is often not as strong and stable as their competitors. The prevalence of symbiotic exchange leads to the structural isomorphism between market and state institutions in China's transitional economy.



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1 Dingjian, Cai, Lishi yu biange: xin Zhongguo fazhi jianshe de licheng (History and Change: The Process of the Construction of the Legal System in New China) (Beijing: Zhongguo zhengfa daxue chubanshe, 1999).

2 Xiaoping, Deng, “Muqian de xingshi he renwu (“The current situation and tasks”), in Deng Xiaoping wenxuan (Selected Writings of Deng Xiaoping), Vol. 2 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1994), p. 263.

3 Alford, William P., “Tasselled loafers for barefoot lawyers: transformations and tensions in the world of Chinese lawyers,” The China Quarterly, No. 141 (1995), pp. 2238; Yulin, Fu, Nongcun jiceng falü fuwu yanjiu (Research on Rural Basic-Level Legal Services) (Beijing: Zhongguo zhengfa daxue chubanshe, 2006).

4 Liu, Sida, “Client influence and the contingency of professionalism: the work of elite corporate lawyers in China,” Law & Society Review, Vol. 40 (2006), pp. 751–82; Liu, Sida, “Globalization as boundary-blurring: international and local law firms in China's corporate law market,” Law & Society Review, Vol. 42 (2008), pp. 771804.

5 Yu, Ping, “Glittery promise vs dismal reality: the role of a criminal lawyer in the People's Republic of China after the 1996 revision of the Criminal Procedure Law,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 35 (2002), pp. 827–65; Halliday, Terence C. and Liu, Sida, “Birth of a liberal moment? Looking through a one-way mirror at lawyers’ defense of criminal defendants in China,” in Halliday, T.C., Karpik, L. and Feeley, M.M. (eds.) Fighting for Political Freedom: Comparative Studies of the Legal Complex and Political Liberalism (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2007), pp. 65107.

6 Wank, David L., Commodifying Communism: Business, Trust, and Politics in a Chinese City (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Dickson, Bruce J., Wealth into Power: The Communist Party's Embrace of China's Private Sector (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Tsai, Kellee, Capitalism without Democracy: The Private Sector in Contemporary China (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

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8 Nee, Victor, “A theory of market transition: from redistribution to markets in state socialism,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 54 (1989), pp. 663–81; Cao, Yang and Nee, Victor, “Comment: controversies and evidence in the market transition debate,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 105 (2000), pp. 1175–89.

9 Guthrie, Doug, “The declining significance of guanxi in China's economic transition,” The China Quarterly, No. 154 (1998), pp. 3162.

10 Walder, Andrew G., “Markets and inequality in transitional economies: toward testable theories,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 101 (1996), pp. 1060–73; Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui, “The resilience of guanxi and its new deployments: a critique of some new guanxi scholarship,” The China Quarterly, No. 170 (2002), pp. 459–76; Bian, Yanjie, “Bringing strong ties back in: indirect ties, network bridges, and job searches in China,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 62 (1997), pp. 366–85.

11 Meyer, John W. and Rowan, Brian, “Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 83 (1977), pp. 340–63; DiMaggio, Paul and Powell, Walter, “The iron cage revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 48 (1983), pp. 147–60; Halliday, Terence C. and Carruthers, Bruce G., “The recursivity of law: global norm-making and national law-making in the globalization of corporate insolvency regimes,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 111 (2007), pp. 1135–202; Liu, Sida and Halliday, Terence C., “Recursivity in legal change: lawyers and reforms of China's Criminal Procedure Law,” Law & Social Inquiry, Vol. 34 (2009), pp. 911–50.

12 Liu, Sida, “Beyond global convergence: conflicts of legitimacy in a Chinese lower court,” Law & Social Inquiry, Vol. 31 (2006), pp. 75106; Michelson, “Lawyers, political embeddedness, and institutional continuity.”

13 Gold, Thomas, Guthrie, Doug and Wank, David (eds.), Social Connections in China: Institutions, Culture, and the Changing Nature of Guanxi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

14 Blau, Peter M., Exchange and Power in Social Life (New York: Wiley, 1964).

15 Emerson, Richard M., “Social exchange theory,” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 2 (1976), p. 336.

16 Molm, Linda, “Theoretical comparisons of forms of exchange,” Sociological Theory, Vol. 21 (2003), pp. 23.

17 Michelson, “Lawyers, political embeddedness, and institutional continuity,” pp. 357–58.

18 Lieberthal, Kenneth G. and Oksenberg, Michel, Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988); Lieberthal, Kenneth G. and Lampton, David M. (eds.), Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Mertha, Andrew C., The Politics of Piracy: Intellectual Property in Contemporary China (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

19 Beijing, Gansu, Guangdong, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Henan, Ningxia, Shanghai, Shanxi, Sichuan and Zhejiang.

20 The interview codes are in the form of ‘‘IN06123,’’ in which ‘‘IN’’ is the abbreviation for “interview,” ‘‘06’’ is the year in which the interview was conducted (e.g. 2006), ‘‘1’’ is the sub-project number and ‘‘23’’ is the number of the interview under that sub-project in that year. The ACLA forum data are coded in the form of “F#123456,” in which “F” refers to the forum, and “#123456” is the number of the first message in a thread as it appears on the forum. The archival data are coded in the form of “DDSF_199503” in which “DDSF” (Dangdai sifa, or Modern Judicature) is the pinyin abbreviation of the Chinese title of the newspaper or journal, and “199503” is the year (e.g. 1995) and issue (e.g. Issue 3) of the publication.

21 Jiali, Xu, Zhonghua minguo lüshi zhidu shi (History of Lawyers in the Republic of China) (Beijing: Zhongguo zhengfa daxue chubanshe, 1998).

22 Cai Dingjian, History and Change, p. 65.

23 China Law Yearbook (Beijing: Zhongguo falü nianjian bianji weiyuanhui, 1989).

24 Gallagher, Mary E., “Mobilizing the law in China: ‘informed disenchantment’ and the development of legal consciousness,” Law & Society Review, Vol. 40 (2006), pp. 783816.

25 Fu Yulin, Research on Rural Basic-Level Legal Services, p. 9.

26 Michelson, “Unhooking from the state.”

27 Data for lawyers are from the China Law Yearbook (1987–2007). Data for basic-level legal workers are from the China Law Yearbook (1987–99) and the China Justice Administration Yearbook (2000–02). From 2002, statistics on basic-level legal workers have disappeared from the public statistics in the yearbooks. The numbers of basic-level legal workers and their firms in 2006 were acquired by a research assistant from the Ministry of Justice.

29 Sida Liu, “Beyond global convergence.”

30 Fusen, Zhang, Sifa buzhang tan sifa xingzheng (The Minister of Justice Discussing Justice Administration) (Beijing: Falü chubanshe, 2006).

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Lawyers, State Officials and Significant Others: Symbiotic Exchange in the Chinese Legal Services Market

  • Sida Liu (a1)


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