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China and Inner Asia
In Session: The Familial Is Political
1: Disputation as a State Enterprise in Contemporary China
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York, United States
Using archival and interview data, this paper underscores a pivotal shift in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That is, marriage used to be a key vehicle for nation-state building. Its integrity and soundness were of paramount importance for the nascent PRC to carry the country from a “backward,” “feudal” past into a modern, socialist future. Once socialism was firmly established, marriage proved to be instrumental for the state’s efforts to build a “civilization” of a particular stripe. When the new millennium finally dawned, the institution of marriage, however, has seen its serviceability—in the form of direct political governance—lessening, prompting state bureaucracies to avert their gaze further away from citizens’ intimate lives. Nowadays, women and men, in need of public intervention in their marriage and family life, have few options other than to take their grievances and claims to the courts. In that sense, marital and familial discontent—once a thoroughly political matter—has been judicialized in the PRC today. To unpack this historical shift, I argue, is to examine how the Chinese state, over time, has recalibrated its governance—and, particularly, its methodologies, techniques, and tactics for dispute management. Through a thorough examination of statecraft emerging from the PRC’s intervention in popular disputes, including marital and family disputes, this paper achieves two goals. One, it breaks away from individual- and society-centered theories of disputation. And, it seeks to steer an ongoing debate on China’s legal reforms in a different direction.