Relatively ‘free spaces’ in China: Narrating and mobilising the law through digital spaces

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Recent legal reforms in China, particularly amendments in 2014 to the Environmental Protection Law, have encouraged environmental nongovernmental organisations (ENGOs) to embrace legal strategies in their advocacy. Such legal mobilisation marks a novel form of collective action that links environmentalists, cause lawyers, journalists, and other concerned individuals. However, the role of social media and mobile technologies in the formulation of these new collective strategies remain understudied. To that end, this paper demonstrates how WeChat, a popular Chinese social media mobile application, has been refashioned as a grassroots platform for cause-based experience-sharing and networking between self-joining individuals and activist groups from different regions. Through the technology, environmental activists seek to construct and disseminate their legal experiences to reach out to the wider public. The paper examines one such example in Xiamen, Fujian Province, where an ENGO, incensed by the conversion of walkways into parking spaces, led the first administrative lawsuit in the name of “pedestrians’ rights” in China in early 2015. Based on an experience-near approach, through participant observation and digital ethnography conducted between May 2015 and May 2016, the paper illustrates, on the one hand, the salience of digitally-networked spaces as “[relatively] free spaces” in collective action (Polletta 1999). On the other hand, it also reveals the complementarity, if not the necessity, of “conventional” free spaces, in the form of public meetings and gatherings, for identity construction that is critical to legal mobilisation. By elucidating the activists’ discourses and experiences both during and after the legal struggle, this exploratory research offers a snapshot of how popular critical consciousness develop under authoritarian rule, as well as the broader possibilities and challenges accompanying “the turn to law” in China.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018
EventXIX ISA World Congress of Sociology - Toronto, Canada
Duration: 15 Jul 201821 Jul 2018


ConferenceXIX ISA World Congress of Sociology
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