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Leuvensesteenweg 13
3080 Tervuren - Belgium
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Norms in the Margins and Margins of the Norm

The Social Construction of Illegality


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Abstracts Panel 3

Panel organizer: Françoise Lauwaert (Free University Brussels, Belgium)

Legality and Illegality in Contemporary China

For a few years, social conflicts have become more and more frequent and visible in China, giving increasing opportunities for actors at various levels to move the lines between legality and illegality. Nowadays, believers in popular cults condemned by the official ideology may find an unexpected support at the local level among some political leaders (Chau); peasants whose property has been expropriated (Ying) and complainants prompting grievances before the Bureau of Letters and Visits (Thireau) try to find their way in the labyrinth of laws and regulations and in that process enlarge their vision of their own society; rural migrant workers struggle for a better place to live and a greater visibility in the social and economic structure (Florence). Confronted with any kind of opposition, the classical answer of the State has been (and is still, in a way) to resort to the rhetoric of chaos and to mobilize his gigantic propaganda apparatus (Richaud). Nevertheless, the complexity of the laws, rules and regulations, and the presence of contradictions at every level of the power apparatus may offer opportunities for the actors of that gigantic play. Moreover, appeals to traditional morality including notions like sense of justice, humane respect and benevolence find an echo among an increasing part of the population, and the “communist” rhetoric may be turned against the new masters of the country. No wonder that many of these troubles occur in the countryside or emanate from rural migrants; peasants have been the principal victims of the social and economic changes. Thus the breaking out of these conflicts tells us another chapter of the true story of the so-called Chinese economic miracle. 


  • Isabelle Thireau (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France)
    Contesting Illegitimate Situations, Reassessing Shared Norms in Contemporary China

    Cette intervention portera sur l’espace d’adresse direct autorisé en Chine par l’administration dite des Lettres et des visites créée en 1951. Elle analysera les façons multiples élaborées par les plaignants qui se saisissent de ce dispositif pour associer, dans leurs témoignages écrits ou oraux qui décrivent des situations injustes, inacceptables, ou illégitimes, le général et le particulier. Les représentants de l’Etat et du Parti interprétant volontiers le seul recours à la loi comme manifestant une position d’extériorité – et donc éventuellement d’opposition- par rapport au groupe, les auteurs de lettres et de visites sont notamment amenés à souligner la légitimité de leur démarche en invoquant, dans le même temps que les dispositions de la loi, les engagements particuliers des hauts dirigeants ainsi que les obligations particulières qui lient administrateurs et administrés.
  • Adam Chau (University of Cambridge, UK)
    Putting Religion in its Place: Spatialising Illegality in Contemporary China

    Religion has been revived in reform-era China, but people are supposed to ‘do religion’ only at officially approved ‘venues for religious activities’. This paper proposes to examine in terms of space and place the dynamics between the permissible and the impermissible, the legal and the illegal in the realm of religious practices in contemporary China, arguing that this ‘venue-isation’ of religion is not simply restrictive but more interestingly productive in moulding the Chinese religionscape.
  • Eric Florence (University of Liege, Belgium)
    Illegalisation, Visibilisation and Appropriation: a Few Thoughts on the Politics of Migrant Labor in South China

    Practices of legal and bureaucratic categorisation, as well normative practices of naming are key within the endless construction and reinvention of nation-states. Such practices are part of larger and complex configurations of power along with institutions, more or less formal-informal practices of social control and governing. Today’s production and circulation of categories such “illegal migrant”, “refugee”, “young delinquent”, etc. need to be thought of in relation to categories such as “the national citizen” and the core values and principles attached to such categories.
    In this paper, I will explore how the dialectics of legality-illegality ─ and practices of visibilisation and invisibilisation ─ can be problematized in relation to a dual process: the ritual affirmation of the Party-state authority and the identity formation of rural migrant workers in South-China. I will argue that such politics ought to be read within the political economy of South-China or what Lee Ching-Kwan has called “decentralized legal authoritarianism” (Lee 2007). By looking at the production and circulation of the category of “the three no’s” (sanwu), I will show that the ambiguity and the flexibility of how this category is used is central in order to account for its symbolic and performative power.
  • Lisa Richaud (Free University Brussels, Belgium)
    Chinese Propaganda and the Social Construction of “Disorder”

    In order to better understand the social norms shared by individuals or groups under study, one of the fieldworker's primary task is to get acquainted with the actors' language and representations. In China, ethnographic work in urban context reveals that the expression “chaos” or “disorder” (luan) is frequently associated, in the actors' discourses, with the political. While the meaning of luan is embedded in the Party-state language and propaganda, the popular reluctance or fear towards “disorder” has often been regarded as a peculiarity of “the Chinese political culture” in scholarly works. This culturalist perspective has thus hindered the study of the social processes underlying such redeployment and reappropriation of dominant discourse amongst Chinese citizens. Tracing out the meaning-making of “disorder” in the Chinese context, the objective of this paper is to examine, at the micro level, the social construction of the politically unacceptable. Gathering data from different fieldworks in Beijing, this inductive research casts light on the representation of "disorder" through discourse and situation analysis. Semi-structured interviews with students from Beijing universities indicate that the representation of "disorder" is partially constructed through political socialisation. Ethnographic observation of interactions in public places enables a contextualisation of the actors' discourse on “disorder”. The labelling of other groups' activities as luan illuminates norm conflicts surrounding the political.
  • Ying Xing (China University of Political Science and Law, China)
    Grassroots Mobilization and the Mechanism of Interest Expression of the Peasants Group: A comparative Study of Four Cases

    By a comparative study of four cases, this article breaks through the debate of paradigm between the organized elite field and the unorganized bottom field, raised by western social movement study and Indian bottom society study respectively. This article expands the concept of “policy-based resistance”, and criticizes the popular idea that the interest expressions of the peasants group actors constructed a very special group with unique goal and logic in their action. Grassroots mobilization makes the mechanism of interest expression of the peasants group manifest flexibility on the methods of interest expression, dualism on the organization, ambiguousness on the political indirection. Grassroots mobilizations is both the process of mobilizing participation, and the process of reasonably controlling and stopping the collective action in good time.


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