Prof. Liu Zuoxiang on “Chinese Structure of Social Order in a Period of Transformation”

Director of the Institute of Rule of Law and Human Rights at Shanghai Normal University, College of Philosophy, Law and Political Sciences, Professor Liu Zuoxiang held a lecture on “Chinese Structure of Social Order in a Period of Transformation” at the Finnish China Law Center on May 17, 2017. The lecture was followed by questions and comments by the discussants Guilherme Vasconcelos Vilaca, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Erik Castrén Institute, University of Helsinki, and Kangle Zhang, Research Fellow at the Erik Castrén Institute, University of Helsinki, who also worked as a translator during the lecture and discussion. After the lecture and initial comments, the audience posed questions and comments and engaged in a lively discussion.

Zhang Kangle (left), Prof. Liu (middle) and Guilherme Vasconcelos Vilaca (right).

In his lecture, Prof. Liu introduced the traditional social order that has developed in China and compared it to the contemporary one. The traditional Chinese social order was based on the “rule of Li” as opposed to the “rule of law” that exists in the contemporary society. Prof. Fei Xiaotong, a scholar on Chinese social order in the 1940s, described “Li” as a “generally acknowledged and harmonious pattern of behaviour”. The “rule of Li order”, therefore, is one based on traditions and commonly accepted norms, which are not enforced in a top-down manner but by the society itself. Citizens obey the accumulated traditions and social norms out of respect towards the society and to cultivate their moral character and self-constraint. In contrast, a “rule of law order” is maintained by political and state power and is enforced by rules and punishments.

The traditional patriarchal and clan system in China’s rural areas functioned as a source of normative control and unifying force within the community. The clan system was efficient at dealing with issues related to relationships within the clan, in matters related to marriage, property, funerals and the like, and acted as a supportive system to the official state order. However, as the example of Nancun village in Guangdong province demonstrates, patriarchal formations began to break down as a result of rural reforms and the elimination of landlords after 1949. During the second wave of reforms in 1979, state control became more lenient. Some forms of nongovernmental organization re-emerged, but failed to achieve their former authoritative position. Economic conditions improved, the village underwent urbanization, and incentives for social grassroots organization independent of state administration decreased.

Yet, China is still undergoing a transformation from a traditional society and the “rule of Li” to a modern society and the “rule of law”. The case of Nancun village is an example of how traditional order of patriarchal rule and the “rule of Li order” has been replaced by a modern social system, where state power and the rule of law have become the dominant guide for maintaining social order. Indeed, on the institutional level, the contemporary Chinese society has the elements of a modern, “rule of law” state. However, the actual social order has still elements of the “rule of Li” embedded in it, especially in rural areas, where transformation is still taking place. Prof. Li characterizes the current state of the Chinese society as a “pluralistically mixed order”, where order is maintained by the “rule of law” mixed with “rule of Li”, as well as other elements of the traditional Chinese society, such as order based on patriarchy, “rule of virtue” and the “rule of man”. The relationships between people have experienced transformations, but still contain elements of formal and informal ideas of social order.

The coexistence of modern and traditional practices within the contemporary Chinese society point out the complexity of defining the societal structure in explicit terms. The contemporary Chinese society is transforming towards a “rule of law order” and at the same time hold elements of the traditional Chinese order, which makes the current Chinese society pluralistic in nature. Elevated economic wellbeing has replaced tradition and patriarchal relationships as a measure of social standard, a trend further enforced by outside influences amongst the younger generation. However, the traditional order still lies at the basis of the contemporary one, and continues to have a strong influence on it.

Guilherme Vasconcelos Vilaca questioning whether a state has the capability to choose its model of social order or whether one naturally emerges from the reality on the ground. Photo by Zhao Yajie.

Professor Liu Zuoxiang is the Director of the Institute of Rule of Law and Human Rights, Shanghai Normal University, College of Philosophy, Law and Political Sciences. He is also the Vice director of Jurisprudence Institute of Chinese Law Society; Member of branch of Chinese IVR.

Author: Cristina D. Juola