China and Inner Asia
University of Georgia, United States
Co-authored with Yifeng Wan and Nanxi Zeng
When using law to entrench their rule, authoritarian rulers face the fundamental dilemma between controlling and empowering the society. Authoritarian states like China have managed to tighten their control over the society with judicial reforms while retaining their discretion of power. To understand the politics of judicialization, this article examines the case of Picking Quarrels in China, which is often denounced as a catch-all offense abused by state elites to arbitrarily punish dissidents. Combining text-as-data analysis of more than 160,000 judicial documents with discourse analysis, we argue that, instead of being arbitrary and unpredictable, the enforcement of Picking Quarrels follows the governance logic of strategic ambiguity. The state has capitalized on the embedded ambiguity in the definition of the crime to exert strict control over political contentions and online speech. Using the Chinese judicial system as an example, we show that strategic ambiguity constitutes an important source of authoritarian durability.