Law, Translation, and Voice

Transformation of a Struggle for Social Justice in a Chinese Village

Author: Sophia Woodman

Abstract:

The channeling of popular struggles through legal cases is central to the strategy of the emerging "rights defense" movement in China, linking grassroots contention with professional mediators who translate grievances into the institutional environment of law. This was the case in an unusual, ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 2005 to remove an elected village chief in Taishi Village in Guangdong, China, by legal means. While the grievances that sparked the campaign were about the unequal distribution of the benefits from village development, the strategy of instituting a recall procedure and the framing of the campaign in terms of democracy and rule of law obscured distinctly gendered issues of poverty and inequality in the village, even though women were among the most visible protesters. This article employs a "sociology of translation" to link framing processes and power dynamics, thus proposing a methodological approach to reconnecting framing with other aspects of movements. In the Taishi case, the translation of the dispute into the language of law had contrary effects: it opened the door to a legitimate, if temporary, public space for the airing of villagers' claims. At the same time, translation legitimized the voices of "experts" who then became de facto leaders in this public space; it also increasingly shifted the action to the internet, to which the villagers apparently had no access. This analysis raises questions about whether such strategies may result in either the formation of durable rights-based identities among grassroots participants or a sense of being connected to a broader social movement.



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