Winning Proposal to the Pierce Scholar's Fund: 2006 Competition

Project Title:Supplementary Field Study to the Project: "The Rule of Law in China: If they Build It, Who Will Come?"

Faculty Sponsor and PI: Prof. Mary Gallagher

Ph.D. Student: Shijian Li

Project Description

Background and Purpose of the Supplementary Study

Under the auspices of National Science Foundation (NSF), the research project "The Rule of Law in China: If they Build it, Who Will Come?", for which I am the PI, explores the development of China's labor legislation since 1978, and the concomitant societal response. As an essential part in understanding theories of law and social change and Chinese politics, the analysis of legal mobilization brought by labor legislation will address one of the seminal questions: does the law have the ability to foster social change?

In 2005, we finished the field implementation of a 4-city, over-4000-sample survey in China about labor legislation and labor dispute resolution, by using a "knowledge, attitude, and practice" design that investigates the range of knowledge, the general attitude, and the real-life experiences of respondents in regards to labor and employment law and workplace grievances. This study provides well-defined descriptive statistics about labor law knowledge, attitude, and practice among Chinese workers.

However, the survey itself tells little about the details of the process and outcomes of labor dispute resolution, which is equally important for understanding legal mobilization in China. Therefore, a microlevel study of detailed case records and interviewing a distinct subgroup of those who decided to use the law or have already experienced litigation, is demanded. Such a qualitative study will help to know how dispute resolution works in practice; how the process and outcomes change the attitudes and behaviors of social actors; and how societal use of legal institutions impacts state institutions and policy implementation.

As a Fulbright scholar affiliated with the East China University of Politics and Law (ECPLU) for the year 2003-2004, the PI conducted in-depth interviewing of 50 disputants seeking advice at the Labor Law Services Center for Workers Legal Aid, a NGO registered under ECPLU. However, those who came to the Legal Aid Center do not constitute a representative sample of all those who brought their cases to arbitration or the courts. Therefore, to have a better and balanced picture of how people reach their decision to litigate, it is necessary to do supplementary interviews of litigants who were not recipients of legal aid.

Thus, the purpose of a supplementary field study is to collect additional information and factual details about other litigants and their cases. We will focus on their attitudinal and behavioral patterns. In particular, the study will focus on understanding how Chinese workers come to the decision to file a dispute, whether they used other forms of legal representation (for-fee lawyers, for example), and how the process of labor dispute resolution affects their attitudes regarding the legal system, the status of labor relations, and the government. These findings can be compared against the sample of legal aid recipients. As labor disputes and unemployment rates are both on the rise in China, this research is significant and important.

Student Role: Collecting and Analyzing Qualitative Data

The PI and the student will work together to design and implement the study, including the sampling, the questionnaires and the IRB process. The student will be fully responsible for the ethnographic interviewing of both current and former disputants in Shanghai, the location of the supplementary study. Potential questions will include: how do workers come to the law? How do they learn about legal options? What are the factors that enter into the decision to use the law to resolve their grievance? Does the union fulfill its obligations in the dispute resolution process as required by the Trade Union Law? Does the issue under dispute affect the process or outcome? Why do workers increasingly reject mediation, but embrace informal settlement after the arbitration process is underway? Are workers discouraged by the time and money needed to pursue arbitration and/or litigation? What are the attitudinal and behavioral changes among workers as a result of the legal mobilization process?

After collecting the data, the student will analyze this qualitative data. We expect the microlevel study on the process and outcomes of labor dispute resolution to uncover a number of critical questions such as: What are the dynamics between administrative and legal processes of dispute resolution? What roles do state and non-state institutions, including most importantly the trade union, legal aid centers, and the local Labor Arbitration Commission, play in dispute resolution? Does legal mobilization tend to stimulate social actors to continue to pursue their rights through legal institutions? Or does contact with the legal system lead to disenchantment and alienation? Answers to these questions will contribute to our understanding of political change in China; in particular the relationship between the developing urban middle class and the state and how the autonomy of the middle class will affect future political liberalization.

How the student will be enriched by the participation

In addition to contributions to the intellectual and methodological rigor for the whole research project, this supplementary study will also be a good chance for the student to get involved in research design and field work. He will be conducting interviews independently, which will train his abilities in research design, project management, interviewing techniques, and sampling techniques. Furthermore, this study will familiarize the student about how to conduct social research in China, and help establish an early collaboration with Chinese academic institutions. We also expect to co-author a paper using this data at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in April 2007.