Interview with Mary Gallagher - Part II

This is Part II of an interview with LRCCS Director Mary Gallagher.  Click here to read Part I, where Professor Gallagher talks about getting started in Chinese studies and her first trip to China - in summer 1989.

Couillard: You just came out with a new book – can you tell me about it?

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Prof Gallagher: The book is called Authoritarian Legality in China: Law, Workers, and the State and is published with Cambridge University Press.  The book is asking a question which a lot of people are asking about authoritarian regimes which is, Can authoritarian regimes borrow from democracy to make authoritarianism work better? 

What I was looking at specifically was how the Chinese government built up a legal system and profession over the last two decades, and a collection of very comprehensive and protective laws, that ostensibly protect people in the workplace.

The government also encouraged the media to propagate information about the laws, and in a sense to delegate law enforcement to workers themselves.  Like saying, “We’ll give you protection, but you’re going to have to sue your company yourself.”

So in the book I looked at how workers did that and how it was successful in terms of improving governance, raising labor standards, and keeping social stability.

Couillard: One thing I read in the book description was that you thought that adopting these democratic practices is undermining the state’s rule.

Prof Gallagher:  Right.  So what I decided in the conclusion is that authoritarian regimes are interested in democratic ideas as a means to improve governance – such as increased transparency, giving channels for dealing with grievance to avoid those grievances turning into mass movements, etc.  But for rule of law building, the government was very half-hearted.  They did a good job making the laws, but didn’t allow for the buildup of supportive institutions, like administrative agencies to sue on workers’ behalf for systematic violations, or stronger trade unions to protect low-wage workers.  

The government didn’t do those things – they just delegated these duties to workers themselves.  What I found is that people tended to be very dissatisfied with this process, and especially so for people at the lower rungs of the labor market.  The people who really needed protection weren’t getting it.

As I argue in the book, the government’s expansion of workplace rights was a tactic to solve larger strategic goals. The central government sees rapid urbanization that is more inclusive and protection as the next growth engine. It can no longer rely on export-oriented industrialization or massive government investment. But formal urbanization, which includes changes in hukou status, is closely linked to formal employment. Pushing expanded workplace rights was a step toward this larger goal. As the book also argues, however, this “self-enforcement” model of implementation has tended to marginalize workers on the lower rungs of the labor market, while improving the protections of those with education and skills.

This inequality in implementation reinforces other types of inequality that divide Chinese citizens: inequality of income, wealth, access to health and education, etc. Some argue that these inequalities make it more likely that China will become stuck in the “middle income trap.”

Couillard: How did you get all this information?  Were you talking to workers, looking at archives?

Prof Gallagher speaking at "China's Economy Today" in 2015

Prof Gallagher speaking at "China's Economy Today" in 2015

Prof Gallagher: The bulk of the work was done through interviews with workers who had received legal aid from a center in Shanghai.  I did that intensively for a few periods over the course of about ten years.  I also collaborated with others to do surveys with a broader population.

Because we were based at the center and had access to their case files, we could prompt them to talk about their cases in detail.  We could say, “We know this happened – why did you choose to settle, to mediate – things like that.  So in the end, I have to say, people who have legal issues often want to talk.  We’d usually start the interviews by asking, “How did the dispute start?”  And many times they’d come back with, “Well, in 1968…”  

Couillard: Haha

Prof Gallagher: Which is basically when they were entering the workforce.  Many of these workers had entered the factories during the Cultural Revolution as a way to not get sent down to the countryside.  So to explain their story, they had to go all the way back.

Couillard: Another thing that I’m interested in hearing your opinion on is the 19th Party Congress, which just concluded recently.  What should we know about that meeting?

Prof Gallagher: Xi Jinping said in his key statement, to paraphrase, one of the biggest obstacles in China’s path is the combination of slowing growth and rising expectations.  This relates to some of the things I wrote about in my book, particularly in regards to the danger of the Chinese government not reaching these goals of inclusiveness and broader workplace protection.

Ten or fifteen years ago migrant workers demanded things that were a function of desperation – they hadn’t been paid, they’d lost their limbs, or other desperate problems of subsistence.  In more recent years we’ve seen demands that are more about security – such as a strike of 50,000 workers in Guangdong in order to get social insurance arrears paid.  

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s interesting and unnerving to observe Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. China needs a decisive leader to get it through this stage because the slowdown of the economy has the potential to affect the party’s hold on power. At the same time, if he has eliminated all sources of criticism and diverse views about how to solve China’s problems, he may make critical mistakes.