'Put that Bucket Down!': Money, Politics, and Property Rights in Urbanizing China
84 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2020
Date Written: April 15, 2020
As China urbanizes, peri-urban farmland becomes valuable commercial real estate. Chinese property law intends to distribute the increased value of farmland exclusively to the state and corporate entrepreneurs. In response, peri-urban villagers across China seek that wealth by conducting real estate development in direct violation of the law. Building upon fieldwork in one Chinese county (Mountain County), this Article examines how villagers manage to do so and uses this phenomenon to make two interventions in legal studies.
First, current law and society literature portrays law and norms either as in competition with each other, or as co-regulators of social relations. This Article seeks to sharpen these general accounts by showing how concrete laws and norms shed the “still mass” of conceptuality and “come alive” in a real-world scenario. I identify four concrete law-norm dynamics: 1. “instantiation,” where laws and norms delineate each other’s meaning in specific instances; 2. “waxing and waning,” where laws and norms reinforce or undermine each other’s effect on human behavior; 3. “transformation,” where laws and norms gradually transform each other’s meaning; and 4. “rule production,” where overtime laws and norms interact to produce new rules.
Second, this Article is a close-up study of the more mundane and less draconian manifestations of Chinese authoritarianism. In contrast with the more draconian iterations in which the Chinese state flouts its own laws, or uses law as a weapon to suppress protests and repress large sections of the population, often by violent and arbitrary methods, my fieldwork reveals a slice of Chinese authoritarianism in which local officials and police officers seemed substantially constrained by formal and informal rules, to the extent that they were unable to stop villagers from illegally building commercial real estate. I argue that officials in Mountain County showed restraint in using force in part because instances of local state lawlessness exposed by Chinese media had produced an image of a “violent, land-grabbing state.” This image had eroded the legitimacy of the government and of officials in Mountain County, and showing restraint was officials’ effort to regain some legitimacy in a local society of mutual acquaintance and geographic immobility. Ironically, however, as officials tried to build legitimacy through public compliance with demolition procedural laws, they (or their colleagues) were also undermining their legitimacy-building effort by engaging in the private practice of corruption.
Keywords: China, urbanization, corruption, land use, norms
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation