Anthropologist Studies Views of Law, Justice in China
By Nancy McGillicuddy
When a merchant in China’s northern province of Hebei kept the profits from locally grown pears, peasants seized his TV in retaliation. And when the merchant sued for illegal appropriation, the judge demanded the peasants return the property without mandating the merchant to pay for the pears.
The peasants perceived this resolution, and many similar rulings, to be an injustice in state law, says East Carolina University anthropologist Christine Avenarius, who was recently awarded several grants — including a $79,367 grant from the National Science Foundation – to study perceptions of fairness and justice in China over the course of two years.
This year, Avenarius, who is fluent in Mandarin, will conduct repeated in-depth interviews of 80 Chinese citizens to determine to what extent their views have changed on law and mediation since the rise of Maoism, when China began to adopt a new social and economic system. The data will contribute to Avenarius’ research on perceptions of fairness and justice in China.
|ECU Anthropologist Christine Avenarius has been awarded funds to research perceptions of law and justice among the Chinese people. She will interview Chinese citizens in both rural and urban settings. (Photo by Erica Plouffe Lazure)
Half of the interviewees will be from an urban setting in Hebei’s capital city of Shijiazhuang. The other interviewees will be from Nanzhuang, a rural village with a population of about 5,000. In the second year of her research, Avenarius will test the findings of the first year with a randomly selected sample of 240 Chinese citizens.
Avenarius said she hopes to determine to what extent the population has adapted to the 30-year old justice system. “There are two parallel systems in China,” she said. “I want to know what people’s opinions are now and how those opinions are shared with the larger population.”
Traditionally, informal mediation based on principles of reciprocity helped resolve disputes. In this ancient system of justice, nepotism and cronyism often played a heavy hand in the outcome of such disputes.
But that system was officially replaced by a formal legal system three decades ago that spelled out consequences for broken laws and offered procedures for filing complaints.
The morph to a system based on the rule of law has been slow, said Avenarius.
One of the main changes in the law is that citizens can take their grievances to court. But, as Avenarius discovered during preliminary research, many residents — particularly those in rural areas — still rely on the centuries-old traditions of mediation.
“I’m hoping to show to what extent people buy into rules and regulations of the state,” she said.
Avenarius noted numerous factors affecting a Chinese citizen’s decision to follow the relatively new laws. For example, the decision to bring a dispute to court is often based on social connections and geography. Urbanites are more likely to file suit, she said. Avenarius’ hypothesizes that traditional mediation is still prevalent to those living in rural areas. And whereas the traditional method of mediation is still important in dispute dissolution in all areas of China, it tends to be used less frequently in urban areas.
The National Science Foundation grant funds Avenarius’ research until September 2007. She was also awarded an ECU seed grant for nearly $20,000 and a college research award from the Harriot College of Arts and Sciences that allows her to spend the spring 2006 semester focusing solely on research.
Avenarius’ research is with the collaboration of professor Jeff Johnson, with ECU’s Department of Sociology and the Institute for Coastal and Marine Resources, who will oversee statistical analysis for the project and will contribute to data analysis as co-investigator of the grant; Professor Zhao Xudong, chairman of the sociology department at China Agricultural University, who is a consultant for the study’s rural sample; and Qi Xin, with The Urban Studies Institute at Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, who is a consultant for the urban sample portion of the research.
Results of the study could help foster international understanding for government and business and point out to what extent old practices and new practices intermingle in China today, Avenarius said.
“To find which traditional values and practices continue to be significant and which new customs have actually been adopted for the settlement of conflicts and the maintenance of social relationships will shed much needed insight into the culture,” she said. “That insight could foster understanding and a better working relationship between the economically booming country and its western counterparts. “To improve the cooperation between Chinese and American partners it is important to know which beliefs, values, and ideas about fairness and justice influence the behavior of Chinese people today.”