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  • Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949–1989 by Jennifer Altehenger
  • Ji Li (bio)
Jennifer Altehenger. Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949–1989. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. xviii, 388 pp. Hardcover $49.95, isbn 978-0-674-98385-4.

The dramatic transformation of the Chinese legal system in the past few decades has spawned a vast literature and has advanced our knowledge about how an authoritarian state makes and enforces laws to strengthen its governance and how ordinary Chinese citizens utilize the same laws to resolve disputes and protect their limited rights. However, a major piece of the large picture—how the state disseminates information about law in China—had remained missing until the publication of Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1989. In this well-researched book, historian Jennifer Altehenger investigates "law propaganda" in the PRC both before the Cultural Revolution and after Mao's death. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, "laws had to be accommodated in the CCP's policies that were, in turn, based on the ideological framework of the Marxist-Leninist canon and Mao Zedong Thought" (p.28). The populace was taught that laws were "weapons" against the non-people, and the dissemination of basic legal knowledge was conducted in a manner that not only reflected but also reinforced the class division of the society. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP leadership shifted its focus from class struggles and political movements to the Four Modernizations. Echoing the policy reorientation, subsequent propaganda materials "increasingly indicated that almost all of China's population was part of the political group of the People and the legal group of citizens" (p. 186). In contrast to the campaign-style propaganda typical of the pre-Cultural Revolution era, the central government, via a series of five-year plans, institutionalized and bureaucratized the popularization of "common legal knowledge" (p. 213).

Underneath the dramatic changes, however, lie several unmistakable continuities. First, as elsewhere in the operation of the state apparatus, top CCP leaders played a determinative role in law propaganda. Mao's personal views on laws' functions and objectives figured prominently in the top-down dissemination of legal knowledge not only in the 1950s and in early 1960s, but even after his death, as the post-Mao leaders cherry-picked his statements that stressed the importance of legal order. Another detailed example is the pivotal [End Page 177] role assumed by several female CCP leaders in the dissemination of the first PRC Marriage Law. The significance of strong leadership did not decline even after the Cultural Revolution, as evidenced by the centrality of Peng Zhen in the state-driven legal popularization. Second, tensions between the state and the populace permeate law propaganda in China. While the state intends the ever-increasing formal laws as primarily effective governance tools, Chinese residents pay more attention to the personal consequences. Hence, a major goal of law propaganda has always been to modify the tensions in favor of the state. Third, limited resources and conflicting commercial interests often discount or distort the effects of law propaganda, and problems of coordination and misinterpretation impair the top-down method of legal knowledge dissemination.

As the author notes, law propaganda exemplifies a crucial aspect of the grand-scale social engineering undertaken by the Chinese government, which inevitably simplifies complex individual and social lives. The book vividly portrays several "unanticipated consequences" and the state's responses. One of the more interesting is, in my opinion, how the state-driven legal dissemination revealed a lack of consensus among the CCP leaders with regard to the ideal models of law. While the USSR might have supplied such models in the early years of the PRC, the deterioration of the bilateral relations and the uncertainties in domestic politics determined the evolving nature of law propaganda in China. Another under-estimated challenge stems from the multi-agency problem common among large organizations, and the book does a remarkable job depicting how the state attempted to mitigate the cost by engaging in constant institutional experimentation. In a country as diverse and complex as...