Published by: Cambridge University Press

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Rightful Resistance
Author(s): Kevin J. O’Brien
Source: World Politics, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Oct., 1996), pp. 31-55
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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words “popular resistance” typically bring to mind images of
negation, usually of the legitimacy of something, and actions by
people who lack recourse to institutional politics.1 When ticking off ex
amples of popular resistance, one is drawn to accounts of marginalized
workers and peasants rejecting the claims of officials and economic
elites?of efforts by the poor and weak to upset the plans of those with
power and status. Whether it is furtive, everyday resistance to
changes in village norms and charitable practices or
open defiance of
national rule, it is uninstitutionalized acts that spring from a deeply felt
(if sometimes artfully undeclared) denial of legitimacy that tend to at
tract attention.2
Much popular resistance surely fits this description. Struggles to
tame political and economic power
are often waged by the utterly ex
cluded and rest on feelings of disavowal, even outrage. At the same
time, however, other episodes of resistance exhibit a somewhat different
logic. Contentious politics is not always a story of neatly divided antag
onists, with representatives of the state or superordinate classes on one
side and members of the popular classes on the other. Sometimes resis
tance depends on the discontented locating and exploiting divisions
among the powerful. In these circumstances setting up “subordinates”
in opposition to “superordinates” can obscure how people actually go
about warding off appropriation and political control. Thinking in
The research for this paper
was conducted with the generous support of the Henry Luce Founda
tion, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Pacific Cultural Foundation, and the
Ohio State University. For advice and comments on earlier drafts, I would like to thank Marc Blecher,
Anita Chan, Daniel Kelliher, Gerald Rosenberg, James Scott, Dali Yang, and, above all, my collabora
tor in the larger project from which this is drawn, Lianjiang Li.
1 On the relationship of resistance to negation, see Andrew Turton, “Patrolling the Middle-Ground:
Methodological Perspectives on ‘Everyday Peasant Resistance,”* in James C. Scott and Benjamin J.
Tria Kerkvliet, eds., Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance in South-East Asia (London: Frank Cass,
1986), 38.
2 For differing views on whether political contention (particularly in the countryside) seeks mainly
to retrieve what was or reaches for something new, see James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peas
ant: Subsistence and Rebellion in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976); and Samuel
L. Popkin, The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979). For the purposes
here, it is only important that intrusive states and expanding markets pose challenges and present op
portunities to marginalized groups and individuals.
World Politics 49 (October 1996), 31-55
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terms of two parties can be especially misleading in those cases when
aggrieved citizens employ government commitments and established
values to persuade concerned elites to support their claims. When re
ceptive officials, for instance, champion popular demands to execute
laws and policies that have been ignored, unexpected alliances often
emerge and simple dominant-subordinate distinctions break down. On
these occasions, popular resistance operates partly within (yet in ten
sion with) official norms; it depends on a degree of accommodation
with a structure of domination, the deft use of prevailing cultural con
ventions, and an affirmation?sometimes sincere, sometimes strate
gic?of existing channels of inclusion.
Nearly a decade ago Jeffrey Herbst pointed to the importance of op
portunities afforded by the wider environment to dissatisfied members
of the popular classes. He advised against turning the state into a “for
bidding monolith” and recommended recognizing that “certain institu
tional arrangements and political goods may be particularly amenable
to the type of political pressure that only weak, unorganized groups
bring to bear.”3 At about the same time James Scott called attention to
forms of resistance that occur “within the official discourse of defer
ence,” inasmuch as they rest on ethical claims legitimated by official
ideologies. Such resistance, Scott explained, can hamstring political or
economic elites because it is couched in the language of loyal inten
tions; it can reveal when members of powerful groups have dared to
take liberties with the symbols in which they are most invested.4 Mean
while, other students of contentious politics have used terms such as
“in-between forms of resistance,” “reformist activism,” and “reasonable
radicalism” to describe petition drives in Thailand, struggles to reclaim
appropriated land in Latin America, and the use of antidiscrimination
laws to agitate for equal pay in the Unites States.5 What is to be made
of individuals or
groups who dispute the legitimacy of certain political
authorities and their actions while affirming (indeed relying upon)
other authorities and established values to pursue their ends? How
should we understand defiant acts that are intended both to open chan
nels of participation and to make use of existing channels, that straddle
Herbst, “How the Weak Succeed: Tactics, Political Goods, and Institutions in the Struggle over
Land in Zimbabwe,” in Forrest D. Colburn, ed., Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Armonk, N.Y.:
M.E. Sharpe, 1989), 199.
Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 101,106.
5 On these types of resistance, see respectively Turton (fn. 1); Leslie E. Anderson, The Political Ecol
ogy of the Modern Peasant: Calculation and Community (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1994), 16; Michael W. McCann, Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobiliza
tion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 276.
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the border between what is usually considered popular resistance and
institutionalized participation?
This article will explore the phenomenon of “rightful resistance,” first
in China and then, more briefly, elsewhere. Rightful resistance is a form
of popular contention that (1) operates near the boundary of an autho
rized channel, (2) employs the rhetoric and commitments of the pow
erful to curb political or economic power, and (3) hinges on locating
and exploiting divisions among the powerful. In particular, rightful re
sistance entails the innovative use of laws, policies, and other officially
promoted values to defy “disloyal” political and economic elites; it is a
kind of partially sanctioned resistance that uses influential advocates
and recognized principles to apply pressure
on those in power who have
failed to live up to some professed ideal or who have not implemented
some beneficial measure.
Rightful resisters normally frame their claims with reference to pro
tections implied in ideologies or conferred by policymakers. Since they
often demand little more than scrupulous enforcement of existing com
mitments, theirs is a defiance based on strict adherence to established
values. In their acts of contention, which usually combine legal tactics
with political pressure, rightful resisters typically behave in accord with
prevailing statutes (or at least not in violation of them). They forgo, for
example, unlawful force or other criminal behavior, which might
weaken their standing and alienate their backers. Instead, rightful re
sisters assert their claims largely through approved channels and use a
regime’s policies and legitimating myths to justify their defiance. Right
ful resisters know full well that instruments of domination which facil
itate control can be turned to new
purposes; they have an aspirational
view of government measures and elite values and recognize that the
very symbols embraced by those in power
can be a source of entitle
ment, inclusion, and empowerment.6
Rightful resistance resembles other forms of popular contention,
though at some remove. It harks back to Gramsci’s “war of position,”
for example, in that it involves probing for weak points in a facade of
power, and because it offers the marginalized a way to work the system
to their minimum disadvantage.7 In their search for patrons, rightful
6 For related discussion, see Mari J. Matsuda, “Looking to the Bottom: Critical Legal Studies and
Reparations,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review 22 (Spring 1987); McCann (fn. 5), 232-33;
Ellis Goldberg, Tinker, Tailor, and Textile Worker: Class and Politics in Egypt, 1930-1952 (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1986), 14-15.
7 See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Now
ell Smith (New York International Publishers, 1971), 229-39; E. J. Hobsbawm, “Peasants and Poli
tics,”Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (October 1973), 13.
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resisters also bear some likeness to “rebels in the name of the tsar,”
Russian peasants who employed the myth of the Tsar-Deliverer to mo
bilize others, protect themselves, and deny claims made by “faithless”
officials.8 At the same time, rightful resisters have a certain affinity with
“everyday resisters” insofar as their defiance is opportunistic and mea
sured and because, at least at first, they almost always lack the organi
zational resources and collective consciousness shared by members of
well-formed groups.
As should be clear, however, rightful resistance is not simply another
variant of everyday resistance or of not-so-na?ve monarchism. Unlike
rebels in the name of the tsar, rightful resisters stop short of violence
and are not limited to wishfulness and willful misinterpretation of
imaginary protections. Their insubordination is in fact nurtured by au
thoritative pronouncements, and they do have actual intercessors. And
unlike everyday resisters, rightful resisters seek rather than avoid the at
tention of elites: whereas foot-dragging, poaching, sabotage, and other
weapons of the weak are invariably quiet, disguised, and anonymous,9
rightful resistance is invariably noisy, public, and open. Rightful re
sisters mitigate the risks of confrontation by proclaiming their alle
giance to core values rather than by opting for disguised dissent.
Indeed, because they work the territory between elites and challenge
malfeasance using an approved discourse, rightful resisters do not sub
scribe to the view that “the state and its laws are typically inaccessible,
arbitrary and alien.”10 To the contrary, they have learned how to exploit
the potent symbolic and material capital made available by modern
states. Rightful resistance is thus a product of state building and of op
portunities created by the spread of participatory ideologies and pat
terns of rule rooted in notions of equality, rights, and rule of law. It
derives as much from the “great tradition” of the powerful as from the
“little tradition” of the powerless, and is a sign of growing rights con
sciousness and a more contractual approach to political life. It appears
as individuals with new aspirations come to appreciate common inter
ests, develop an oppositional consciousness, and become collective ac
tors in the course of struggle.11
8 Daniel Field, Rebels in the Name of the Tsar (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976).
James C. Scott, “Everyday Forms of Resistance,” in Colburn (fn. 3), 8.
Ibid., 28.
11 On the collective definition of grievances, see Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Develop
ment of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 33-35. On the de
velopment of an “oppositional consciousness” that only partly rejects a would-be “hegemonic
consciousness,” see Aldon D. Morris, “Political Consciousness and Collective Action,” in Aldon D.
Morris and Carol Mueller, eds., Frontiers in Social Movement Theory (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1992), 363-64.
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For rightful resistance to
emerge, discontented community members
must first become aware that they have been granted certain protec
tions. For it to be effective, its practitioners must craft effective legal
tactics, mobilize followers, and win a measure of sufferance, even
port, for their contention. That rightful resisters often engage in dis
ruptive but not quite unlawful collective action inevitably attracts the
attention of officials responsible for maintaining social peace and ad
ministering justice. That they use the vocabulary of the regime to ad
vance their claims can help them locate advocates among the powerful
and may afford a measure of protection when their plans go awry.
Rightful resistance, with its slightly oxymoronic sound, is the quin
tessential “critique within the hegemony.” Those who pursue it take the
values and programs of political and economic elites to heart while
demonstrating that some authorities do not. They launch attacks that
are legitimate by definition in a rhetoric that even unresponsive au
thorities must recognize, lest they risk being charged with hypocrisy
and disloyalty to the system of power they represent.12
I. Rightful Resistance in China
Rightful resistance can
appear in many settings; it happens, however,
that the concept was derived from research on rural China. This sec
tion presents evidence from interviews with Chinese villagers, grass
roots cadres, and officials at higher levels, as well as accounts of rightful
resistance gleaned from government circulars and field reports by Chi
nese researchers.13 The incidents examined center on disputes involv
ing appropriation and cadre accountability: they were chosen for their
diagnostic value, diversity, and ability to shed light on the dynamics of
rightful resistance. Individually, each episode illuminates at least one
feature of rightful resistance;14 together, they trace what can occur when
villagers frame their claims around party policies and official values, so
licit assistance from influential backers, and combine legal tactics with
collective action to defend their “lawful rights and interests” (hefa
12 For an insightful discussion of how resistance can originate within a hegemonic discourse, see
Scott (fn. 4), 90-107. A passage on critiques within the hegemony that are legitimate by definition ap
p. 106.
13 The fieldwork for this article was conducted in twenty-two villages, over a dozen townships and
county towns, three provincial capitals, and Beijing from 1992 to 1995. The interviews were conducted
by the author and Lianjiang Li, sometimes together and sometimes apart. 14 Given the sensitivity of rural resistance and the limitations of Chinese sources, full ethnographic
detail for each episode was not always available.
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Rightful Claims
The roots of Chinese rightful resistance lie in the rich soil of central
policy. To appreciate how the programs of an unaccountable national
leadership provide openings for rightful resisters, the term “central pol
icy” must be understood in its broad Chinese sense. Central policies, in
this usage, include essentially all authoritative pronouncements, rang
ing from party documents, laws, state council regulations, and leader
ship speeches to editorials by special commentators in prominent
newspapers. Central policies can be both as general as guidelines
{fangzhen) that cadres should “develop the economy” or be “clean and
honest” or as specific as regulations prohibiting local fees from exceed
ing 5 percent of a villager’s net income the previous year. At the same
time, central policies may be formally ratified, like the state constitu
tion, or only informally publicized, like Deng Xiaoping’s remark that
“some people should be allowed to get rich first.” The scope of central
policy in China thus encompasses what constitutes law in most other
nations but also reaches into far murkier realms, such as pledges made
by officials on inspection tours, party propaganda, and the “spirit of
the center.”
In the Chinese countryside the number of grievances amenable to
rightful resistance has been rising. Discontented villagers increasingly
cite laws, regulations, and other authoritative communications when
challenging all sorts of cadre malfeasance, particularly misconduct re
lated to economic appropriation and autocratic “work style.”15 They
often claim a right, for instance, to withhold grain tax payments be
cause they have not received fertilizer or diesel fuel that government
authorities were contractually obliged to provide.16 On even firmer
ground, rightful resisters sometimes point to regulations limiting
“farmers’ burdens” to fend off unapproved fees or demands for grain
that exceed amounts previously agreed to. In one of the poorest villages
in Henan’s Sheqi County, for example, a
group of plucky villagers pre
sented county officials with state council regulations distributed by the
Tang Jinsu and Wang Jianjun, “Nanyi huibi de redian: jinnian nongcun ganqun guanxi toushi”
(Hot issues that are hard to avoid: perspectives on rural cadre-mass relations in recent years) (Report
of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Beijing, 1989), 4-5. A shortened version appeared in Difang Zhengzhi
yuXingzheng, no. 3 (1990), 15-20; no. 4 (1990), 13-17; Fang Guomin, “Dui dangqian nongcun jiti
shangfang qingkuang de diaocha fenxi” (Investigation and analysis of the current situation of groups
seeking audiences at higher levels), Xiangzhen Luntan, no. 12 (December 1993), 36; Cheng Tongshun,
“Dangqian Zhongguo nongmin de zhengzhi canyu” (Political participation of current Chinese peas
ants) (Masters thesis, Nankai University,Tianjin, 1994), 11-12.
16 “Shixin haiyao feili” (Not only breaking promises, but also using force), Hebet Nongcun Gongzuo,
no. 6 (June 1993), 42.
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prefectural government when protesting thirty-seven fees that far ex
ceeded the 5 percent limit announced in 1991.17 The complainants’ un
spoken threat was that if county officials dared to rebuff them, they
would take their case
up the hierarchy and insist that prefectural offi
cials enforce central regulations they themselves had publicized.
Contractual ways of thinking and a growing fluency in rights talk ap
pear to underlie much of the rightful resistance emerging in the Chi
nese countryside.18 Increasingly censorious villagers are demanding
fidelity to values and rights embodied in the contract responsibility sys
tem of farming (which has been promoted by the central government
since the early 1980s), and are finding fault with local power holders
who fail to respect the sanctity of agreements.19 These exacting critics
know that the center seeks to encourage economic growth by creating
webs of reciprocal obligation, and they are prepared to hand over what
ever grain and fees are lawfully owed, provided the local representatives
of state power treat them equitably, respect their rights, and deliver on
promises made by officials at higher levels.
When, however, grassroots leaders neglect the letter of the law or
refuse to respect limits on their discretion, eagle-eyed villagers are quick
to step in and to accuse them of engaging in prohibited behavior. They
say things such as, “Failing to carry out the ‘three-linkage-policy’ [con
cerning supply of agricultural inputs] amounts to unilaterally breaking
a contract. I have the right not to pay the grain tax. You have broken
the contract, how can
you ask me to honor it?”20 Or, “Central policy
says that after farmers fulfill their contractual obligations, we can sell
our grain freely on the market, why don’t you obey? If you don’t listen
to the Center, then we won’t listen to you…. Why do you always op
pose the Center? Why do you always oppose us? Are you cadres of the
Communist Party?”21 Employing authorized symbols to pose incon
Cheng Tongshun (fn. 15), 11-12.
18 On contractual ways of thinking in the countryside, see Murray Scot Tanner, “Law in China: The
Terra Incognita of Political Studies,” China Exchange News 22 (Winter 1994), 21-22; David Zweig et
al., “Law, Contracts, and Economic Modernization: Lessons from the Recent Chinese Rural Re
forms,” Stanford Journal of International Law 23 (Summer 1987), 326, 335.
19 On “censorious” Chinese villagers, see Marc Blecher, “Collectivism, Contractualism and Crisis in
the Chinese Countryside,” in Robert Benewick and Paul Wingrove, eds., China in the 1990s (Vancou
ver: UBC Press, 1995), 106. On the concept of censoriousness more broadly, see Thomas Mathiesen,
The Defenses of the Weak: A Sociological Study of a Norwegian Correctional Institution (London: Tavis
tock, 1965).
20 “Shixin haiyao feili” (fn. 16), 41.
Tang Jinsu and Wang Jianjun (fn. 15), 4. On reciprocal rights and duties in dynastic China, see
Wang Gungwu, The Chineseness of China: Selected Essays (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1991),
165-86. Interestingly, Wang argues that the notion of reciprocal duties currently takes the form of
cadres “serving the people” and citizens meeting their legal responsibilities.
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venient rhetorical questions, these villagers wrap their resistance in sweet
reason and tender impeccably respectable demands; at the same time
their rebukes reflect a heightened rights consciousness, changed percep
tions of cadre responsibilities, and a claim to equal status before the law.22
In addition to inspiring challenges to unauthorized financial de
mands, a contractual logic is also beginning to appear,
as Chinese vil
lagers turn a disapproving eye toward “unqualified” {bu hege) cadres and
the undemocratic methods by which they are often selected. Delega
tions of rightful resisters, for example, frequently lodge complaints
about rigged village elections, demand greater responsiveness and fi
nancial disclosure, and request the removal of imperious local leaders.23
Relying mainly on the Organic Law of Villagers’ Committees (1987)
and regulations governing its implementation, some rural dwellers
make much of procedural violations that Chinese peasants are usually
thought to overlook. Following are just a few examples concerning one
of the most delicate issues in rural China, that is, rules mandating how
to constitute the village political elite:
?Two young
men in Hunan, when facing an illegal snap election, organized
fellow villagers to plaster seventy-four posters around their village, recommend
ing rejection of hand-picked candidates and opposition to “dictatorial elec
?Hundreds of Shanxi farmers besieged a county government, demanding
that a village election be nullified after a cadre seeking reelection escorted a mo
bile ballot box on its rounds.25
?Residents of two Shanxi villages occupied a township office and refused to
end their sit-in until officials agreed to make their villages “special zones” where
free elections would be conducted and unpopular cadres could be removed.26
?Nearly a hundred Hebei villagers lodged complaints at the Central Disci
pline Inspection Commission in Beijing concerning a township party committee
22 On villagers’ “awareness of personal rights and an intention to protect them,” see Yun-xiang Yan,
“Everyday Power Relations: Changes in a North China Village,” in Andrew G. Walder, ed., The Wan
ing of the Communist State: Economic Origins of Political Decline in China and Hungary (Berkeley: Uni
versity of California Press, 1995), 235.
Zhongguojiceng Zhengquan Jianshe Yanjiuhui, Zhongguo Nongcun Cunmin Weiyuanhui Huanjie
Xuanju Yanjiu Baogao (Research report on rural Chinas villagers’ committee r??lections) (Beijing:
Zhongguo Shehui Chubanshe, 1994); Fang Guomin (fn. 15), 36; interview with township official,
1993. One Liaoning farmer expressed his desire for greater disclosure with these words: “I don’t know
what kind of fee you are asking me to pay. When I know, I’ll hand over any amount requested”; “Shixin
haiyao feili” (fn. 16), 41.
24 These posters were all written on white paper (a color associated with death and ill fortune). This
gesture attracted the attention of county officials, who investigated the charges and ruled that the bal
loting should be rescheduled and nominations reopened. See Zhongguo Jiceng Zhengquan Jianshe
Yanjiuhui (fn. 23), 80.
25 Interviews with two officials from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Beijing, June 1994.
26 Shao Xingliang et al., “Yi min wei tian” (Regarding the people as sovereign), Xiangzhen Luntan,
no. 4 (April 1994), 10-13.
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that insisted that a village party branch had the right to nominate villagers’ com
mittee candidates.27
?Over twenty Liaoning complainants, indignant about “minor procedural ir
regularities,” traveled at their own
to the county seat, to the provincial
capital, and finally to Beijing, at each stop reciting chapters of the Organic Law
of Villagers’ Committees while appealing for new elections.28
In each of these incidents resourceful villagers cited specific clauses
or the spirit of the Organic Law as grounds for their resistance. They
treated freshly minted restrictions on cadre power
as if they codified
leadership obligations in their village and argued, in essence, that the
Organic Law created entitlements they had a right to expect would be
While infractions of new election procedures are generating rightful
resistance in many locations, Chinese villagers also base their defiance
on other leadership assurances and more ambiguous promises, some of
which date to the Maoist era. The following are some of the recent laws
and institutional protections to which rural residents have turned: the
Administrative Litigation Law (1989), which enables villagers to sue
officials who beat them up
or who tear down their homes without
going through legal channels; the Accounting Law (1985), which enti
tles villagers to make claims related to financial disclosure; new cadre
responsibility systems, which set targets for cadres but also oblige them
to respect villagers’ rights; minutely detailed village charters and codes
of conduct, which codify rights and responsibilities and provide stan
dards for cadre supervision; and birth control regulations (not the pol
icy itself, which is of course impervious to rightful resistance, but
improper favoritism in allocating village-level quotas).29 Even criminal
statutes can at times provide grounds for rightful resistance. Yun-xiang
Yan recounts how one villager accused several township policemen of
“violating the law and human rights” for detaining him without an ar
rest warrant. When Yan encountered him, the villager was noisily de
manding justice from the county government, as he brandished a
booklet explaining the criminal law.30
27 Interview with official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Beijing, June 1994.
28 Tian Yuan, “Zhongguo nongcun jiceng de minzhu zhilu” (The pathway to grassroots democracy
in rural China), Xiangzhen Luntan, no. 6 (June 1993), 3-4. Complaints about election irregularities
can also be found in Zhongguo Jiceng Zhengquan Jianshe Yanjiuhui (fn. 23).
29 Interviews with two township officials, 1993; interview with provincial civil affairs bureau offi
cial, 1993; Bao Yonghui, “Cunmin zizhi fuhe bu fuhe Zhongguo guoqing?” (Does villagers’ autonomy
accord with Chinas conditions?), Xiangzhen Luntany no. 6 (June 1991), 12; interview with village
party secretary, 1993; interview with villagers, 1994.
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All these protections offer ready-made rationales for demanding
rights guaranteed by the center but undermined at lower levels. When
such well-grounded appeals do not meet with success, however, another
set of somewhat more equivocal commitments provides a different sort
of ammunition?usually less potent, but occasionally quite effective. In
years, for instance, villagers have been linking their claims with
seemingly halfhearted campaigns to “clean up the government” and
“promote rule by law.”31 Venturing forth in the name of unimpeachable
ideals and in response to the center’s “call” (haozhao), they use the
regime’s own pledges to assail corrupt and predatory cadres. At the
same time, some villagers have also given new life to Maoist norms and
buzzwords by summoning up “communist values” to support demands
that cadres “work hard and live plainly” and be willing to “serve the
people.” Acting now in the name of loyalty to the revolution and its
founder, they “search for the real Communist Party” and level charges
against “commandist” and grasping cadres who “oppress the masses”
and are not “authentic communists.”32
Origins and Dynamics
Rural resistance is, of course, far from new in a nation where peasant
rebellions have occurred for thousands of years and not a single decade
of this century has been entirely without rural unrest.33 Even more
mane to this discussion, petitioning and appeals have long been ele
ments in the Chinese repertoire of contention, and it was Mao himself
who launched mass campaigns against corrupt and unreliable grass
roots cadres and said “to rebel is justified.”34 Still, the rural rightful re
31 Interviews with two villagers, 1994.
See, for example, Wang Wanfu, “Mo rang qunzhong ‘xunzhao gongchandang’

(Don’t make the
masses “look for the Communist Party”), HebeiNongcun Gongzuoy no. 9 (September 1992), 33; also in
terview with villager, 1994. Leveling charges concerning “oppressing the masses” was discussed in a
1993 interview with a township official.
33 On rural collective violence before the mid-1980s, see David Zweig, “Struggling over Land in
China: Peasant Resistance after Collectivization, 1966-1986,” in Colburn (fn. 3); Elizabeth J. Perry,
“Collective Violence in China, 1880-1980,” Theory and Society 13 (May 1984); idem, “Rural Violence
in Socialist China,” China Quarterly 103 (September 1985).
34 On petitioning and remonstrating in dynastic China, see Mary Backus Rankin,

‘Public Opinion
and Political Power: Qingyi in Late Nineteenth Century China,” fournal of Asian Studies 41 (May
1982); Jonathan K. Ocko, “I’ll Take It All the Way to Beijing: Capital Appeals in the Qing,”fournal of
Asian Studies 47 (May 1988). On precommunist petitions and their relation to repertoires of con
tention in post-Mao China, see Elizabeth J. Perry, “To Rebel Is Justified: Maoist Influences on Popu
lar Protest in Contemporary China” (Paper presented at the colloquium series of the Program in
Agrarian Studies, Yale University, November 1995). On post-Mao remonstrators and their relation
ship to the state, see Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1985), 24-26; Kevin J. O’Brien, “Agents and Remonstrators: Role Accumulation by Chinese People’s
Congress Deputies,” China Quarterly 138 (June 1994).
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sistance described here is not merely a recrudescence of routines that
have existed from time immemorial, nor is it an echo of the mobilized
resistance of the Maoist era, nor a simple borrowing of legalistic tactics
pioneered by Chinese workers and intellectuals.35 For it is only with re
cent socioeconomic and political reforms that rural residents have
begun to blend traditional tactics with self-directed, legalistic, and
sometimes proactive struggles to restructure villagewide governance
and effect institutional change. Post-Mao reforms have shifted re
sources toward nonstate, local actors and have offered villagers unparal
leled opportunities to press
new claims.36 As decollectivization and
marketization have made villagers wealthier and less dependent on vil
lage cadres, the end of class labeling and mass political campaigns have
made them less fearful.37 As increased mobility and media penetration
have made them more knowledgeable about their exploitation and
about resistance routines devised elsewhere, so too administrative, elec
toral, and legal reforms have given them more protection against retal
iation and more violations to protest.
These changes taken together have nurtured the current spurt of tac
tical innovation and have rendered rightful resistance less risky and
more effective than petitioning and appealing to higher levels had been
in the past. Bottom-up initiative has become more feasible because
restless villagers are more aware of conflicts of interest with local cadres
35 To see how contemporary resistance “bears the imprint of past practices” and how a “blurring” in
protest repertoires of students, workers, and peasants that began during the Cultural Revolution is ac
celerating, see Perry (fn. 34). Perry, despite her focus on “continuations,” agrees that recent unrest is
partly a by-product of post-Mao reforms. On the adaptation of old repertoires to new concerns, see
Sebastian Heilmann, “Grass-Roots Protest and the Counter-Cultural Revolution of the Seventies”
(Manuscript, Hamburg, Germany, July 1995).
36 On the empowering effects of quiet changes in “resource arrays,” see Kate Xiao Zhou and Lynn
T. White III, “Quiet Politics and Rural Enterprise in Reform China,”fournalofDeveloping Areas 29
(July 1995), 463-65.
37 The extent of villager dependence on village cadres before and after reform has been a subject of
lively debate. For several perspectives, see Jean C. Oi, State and Peasant in Contemporary China (Berke
ley: University of California Press, 1989); Victor Nee, “A Theory of Market Transition: From Redis
tribution to Markets in State Socialism,” American Sociological Review 54 (October 1989); Jonathan
Unger, “State and Peasant in Post-Revolution China,” fournal of Peasant Studies 17 (October 1989),
133-35; Vivienne Shue, The Reach of the State (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1988); An
drew G. W?lder, “Markets and Inequality in Transitional Economies: Toward Testable Theories,”
American fournal of Sociology 101 (January 1996). On the declining importance of administrative con
nections even in marketized areas with high labor-demand, see William L. Parish, Xiaoye Zhe, and
Fang Li, “Nonfarm Work and Marketization of the Chinese Countryside,” China Quarterly 143 (Sep
tember 1995). Some research suggests that declining dependence may be most pronounced in poor
agricultural villages. See Jean C. Oi, “Rational Choices and Attainment of Wealth and Power in the
Countryside,” in David S. G. Goodman and Beverly Hopper, eds., Chinas Quiet Revolution: New In
teractions between State and Society (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1994), 73; Kevin J. O’Brien, “Im
plementing Political Reform in Chinas Villages,”Australian fournalofChinese Affairs 32 (July 1994).
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and more able to act without prompting from above.38 Emboldened by
what often seems to be a genuine belief that their codified rights have
been abridged, villagers are increasingly willing to invoke unsettling
symbols and to mount high-profile protests.39 Even in places where
grassroots cadres broker economic relationships and still control access
to vital resources, villagers are better placed to defy corrupt or arbitrary
rule and unsanctioned appropriation.
Of course, increased leverage over structurally weaker cadres does
not automatically translate into effective resistance. In today’s China
rightful resisters seldom win the day uncontested. For one, “rural cadres
generally do not welcome the diffusion of political information, espe
cially about personal rights,”40 and some openly oppose central efforts
to promote legal education. Grassroots leaders typically feel that more
knowledgeable villagers are harder to control, and they sometimes de
tain or rough up villagers simply for publicizing popular central policies.
At the same time equally established principles support existing
power relations and serve to delegitimize even well-grounded rightful
resistance. Chinese villagers, for example, may speak of “democratic
work style” and their right to “reflect problems and expose bad cadres,”
but cadres can often trump them by invoking “democratic centralism”
and the need to maintain “stability above all.”41 Or when farmers charge
that it is unlawful to lock them up simply because a family member has
violated the birth control policy, a public security officer may just as
persuasively counter that forcing relatives to attend full-time, daily
“study sessions” is warranted because a national policy like family plan
ning takes precedence over
any other law and every citizen has an
obligation to assist in its enforcement.42
For their part, accused cadres typically try to discredit and disrupt
rightful resistance by pointing to norms sanctioning coercion and also
38 On farmer conflicts with the state, see Thomas P. Bernstein, “In Quest of Voice: China’s Farmers
and Prospects for Political Liberalization” (Paper presented at the University Seminar on Modern
China, Columbia University, February 10,1994).
39 In a seven-year dispute over the illegal renaming of a township, hundreds of Shanxi villagers
demonstrated in front of a county office building, demanding that the responsible officials come out.
A group of the complainants marched carrying lit lanterns and candles (in broad daylight!) to prove
that they could not “see” under the township s dark rule. Li Renhu and Yu Zhenhai, “Yangzhao xiang
gengming fengbo” (The disturbance over changing the name of Yangzhao Township), Banyuetan
(Neibuban), no. 6 (March 1993), 32-36. This case is a textbook example of rightful resistance because
the villagers (1) based their claims on two state council regulations, (2) sought to locate allies in the
county and provincial government, and (3) engaged in lawful collective action.
40 Yan (fn. 22), 235. For a similar report, see Yu Xin,

‘Luan tanpai’ reng wei xiu” (Arbitrary appor
tionments still have not stopped), Minzhuyu Fazhi} no. 9 (September 1993), 26-27.
41 Interview with township official, 1993.
42 Interview with township official, 1993.
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to political expediency. Most grassroots leaders are proficient at casting
all contention in the ominous light of “rebellion against village cadres”
and at countering legal tactics and smothering collective action by win
ning support from officials at higher levels. Township and county party
secretaries, for example, frequently side with notoriously high-handed
village cadres so long as they enforce birth control regulations and in
duce villagers to pay their taxes and fees.43 Township leaders, in partic
ular, tend to be receptive to pleas from village leaders that they face
dozens of genuinely incompatible demands that even the most consci
entious cadre could never meet.44
Many cadres use these conflicting norms and expectations to make
rightful resisters appear unreasonable and to justify not implementing a
popular measure or institutional protection. When all is said and done,
officials at higher levels often end up dispatching the police to suppress
rightful resisters who disrupt a rigged election or lodge a complaint?
particularly if the targeted cadre lubricates a request for protection with
a fine meal or a bribe.45 And even if they find it impolitic to defend a
cadre openly, township and county leaders can often convince judicial
authorities to conduct perfunctory investigations of policy-based
charges, or to spend years taking testimony or auditing finances.46 In
present-day China, a strong legal case and the use of compelling nor
mative language is merely the ante for rightful resisters; to overcome
the many advantages cadres still enjoy, villagers must also secure
port from backers who have more clout than their adversaries.47
Zhang Chenggong, “Cunzhang si yu chunjie” (Village heads die at spring festival), Landun, no. 3
(March 1993), 26-27; Zeng Yesong, “Jingdong Zhongnanhai de shinian yuanan” (A ten-year-long un
just verdict that disturbs Zhongnanhai), Zhongguo Nongmin, no. 5 (May 1995), 34-37; Lu Fengjun,
“Da eba Han Gang fufa ji” (Report on the execution of local bully Han Gang) (Paper by a county ju
dicial official, Shandong Province, 1993). 44
Maintaining morale among village cadres is a top concern of township leaders, particularly in un
stable, “semiparalyzed” villages where underpaid, overworked cadres often threaten to abandon their
posts. Interview with a township official, 1993.
45 Interviews with villagers, 1994. Suppression sometimes fails. In one telling case several villagers
tore up their ballots just as a village election began and denounced a township-promoted candidate as
corrupt. Though township officials at first sought to prosecute them for “impeding an election,” and
the county procurator accepted the case, the provincial people’s congress, after consulting with the Na
tional People’s Congress, decided it was “not appropriate to regard their actions as illegal” because the
original nominating process had been conducted improperly. Zhongguo Jiceng Zhengquan Jianshe
Yanjiuhui (fn. 23), 107-8.
46 Interviews with villagers, 1994. In Hebi City, Henan, about 60 percent of the collective com
plaints lodged in 1993 demanded an audit of village financial records, sometimes up to ten years’
worth. Fang Guomin (fn. 15), 36.
Jonathan Fox argues that opportunities to gain citizenship rights rarely arise so long as authori
tarian elites remain united, but that divisions caused by declining legitimacy and threats to long-term
political stability can increase “access to state entidements,” even without meaningful electoral com
petition. See Fox, “The Difficult Transition from Clientelism to Citizenship: Lessons from Mexico,”
World Politics 46 (January 1994), 155-56.
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In this regard, many rightful resisters have proven themselves adept
at finding advocates (including journalists)48 who are willing to investi
gate their charges and champion their claims.49 Resourceful villagers
skillfully ferret out supporters in various bureaucracies who have a stake
in seeing their appeals addressed and in upholding the policies they in
voke. Officials in the Ministry of Civil Aifairs and its local offices, for
instance, frequently receive delegations of villagers protesting infrac
tions of the Organic Law of Villagers’ Committees?a law the ministry
is entrusted to implement.50 Discipline Inspection Commissions, for
their part, have become a focus for collective complaints concerning vi
olation of party discipline, and some county procurators, particularly
their anticorruption offices, have been receptive to charges concerning
criminal misconduct.51 Local people’s congresses, in the course of pro
moting rule by law, often attract groups of villagers who point to the
villagers’ committee law and local implementing regulations when
combating election irregularities. Even letters and visits offices of pub
lic security bureaus can serve as a clearinghouse for grievances, and at
times have roused ranking officials to investigate accusations of wrong
Given the limited institutionalization of Chinese politics and be
cause their opponents usually have protectors among the local notables
who matter most, rightful resisters typically find it advantageous to
press their claims wherever they can.53 They recognize that state
nowadays is both fragmented and divided against itself, and they know
that if they search diligently, they can often locate pressure points
48 In one village I visited, farmers have raised a collection to hire a journalist (preferably a reporter
from the Focus segment of the CCTV program Dongfang Shikong) to investigate their charges. Inter
views with villagers, 1994.
49 Hobsbawm (fn. 7), 15, writes: “It is as though the villages, always conscious of potential strength
even within their subalternity, required only the assurance of goodwill or even mere toleration from
the highest authorities to straighten their backs.”
50 Interview with official of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, 1994; interviews with provincial civil af
fairs bureau officials, 1993 and 1994.
Fang Guomin (fn. 15), 36; interview with villager, 1994.
52 On “letters and visits work” and the use of mass petitions by leaders at higher levels to monitor
cadre performance, see Yasheng Huang, “Administrative Monitoring in China,” China Quarterly 143
(September 1995), 834-35; Ma Jinlin, “Jianchi qunzhong luxian, miqie dangqun guanxi” (Uphold the
mass line, improve party-mass relations) (Paper by a county official, Hebei Province, 1992).
53 Cf. “In fact, given the highly personal nature of political ties in Morocco generally, it is very likely
indeed that if any individual has a problem in his own locale he will seek a person who can help him
from any place in the country, any position in the official hierarchy, and on the basis of any personal
connection that best serves his particular purpose at the moment.” Lawrence Rosen, “Social Identity
and Points of Attachment: Approaches to Social Organization,” in Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz,
and Lawrence Rosen, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1979), 53.
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where elite unity crumbles.54 They are perfectly aware that their resis
tance hinges on exploiting the divergent interests of officials both in
different systems (xitong) and at different levels in the same system,
and they astutely align themselves with benefactors (enren) who are dis
posed to take their charges seriously and who have the authority to en
sure that a cadre is disciplined or prosecuted.
Rightful resistance, in the final analysis, allows villagers to attack
abusive cadres with rights claims rather than with their “shoulder
poles.”55 It is pursued by those who (at least outwardly) accept party
rule and who go along with many unwelcome measures (for example,
birth control, economic extraction) in exchange for unflinching execu
tion of all popular policies. Such individuals cede the high ground to
official values, shape their defiance from materials made available by the
structure of domination, and appeal to elites who recognize that their
claims are consistent with established principles. Aware of the risks in
volved in other, less dependent forms of contention, they forgo revolu
tionary demands and offer conditional consent to rulers who control
their agents and enforce their ideals. Their claims do not always fall on
deaf ears because some members of the elite believe that offering re
dress may help placate the discontented and reduce the likelihood of
unrest while improving policy implementation and cadre oversight.56
That rightful resistance is turning up in the Chinese countryside is
perhaps not a great surprise, given the growing chasm between what is
promised and what is delivered. But rightful resistance does not appear
only where accountability is advocated but weakly institutionalized and
rights are granted but weakly guaranteed. Elites in other settings may
also be encouraged by rights talk, legal tactics, and political pressure to
surrender advantages in accord with principles that usually favor them.
In places far from rural China, different established values, l?gitim?t
54 For a discussion of “sandwich strategies” and triangular conflict between reformers, entrenched
elites, and popular forces, see Jonathan Fox, The Politics of Food in Mexico: State Power and Social Mo
bilization (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), chaps. 6, 7. On “fragmented authoritarian
ism,” see Kenneth G. Lieberthal and David M. Lampton, Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in
Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), chap. 1.
Wang Wanfu (fn. 32), 33. On concerns that angry villagers may one day attack grassroots leaders
with their shoulder poles, see Peng Zhen (Speech to the fifth joint meeting of delegation leaders and
members of the Law Committee of the Sixth National People’s Congress, April 6,1987).
56 Interviews with central officials, 1993 and 1994. On the role of the Organic Law of Villagers’
Committees in reducing cadre-mass conflict, improving policy implementation, and strengthening
cadre supervision, see Wang Zhenyao, “Woguo nongcun de lishixing biange yu cunmin zizhi de biran
qushi” (Our country’s historical reform and the inevitable trend of villagers’ autonomy), in Min
zhengbu Jiceng Zhengquan Jianshesi Nongcunchu, ed., Cunmin Zizhi Shifan Jiangxi Ban Shiyongjiao
cai (Teaching materials for the study group on villagers’ autonomy demonstration) (Laixi City,
Shandong Province, November 1991), 44-45.
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ing myths, and government commitments may also provide a basis for
rightful resistance.
II. Comparative Perspectives
Most social scientists would agree that the value of a concept is closely
related to how well it travels.57 A truly useful theoretical construct has
to survive applications beyond its original context; it must continue “to
yield defensible interpretations as new social phenomena swim into
With this in mind, this section looks to the research of others to sug
gest instances of rightful resistance outside of China. Two of the exam
ples presented are fragmentary and illustrate only elements of rightful
resistance. One is more complete. The aim here is simply to highlight a
common dynamic: to identify “deep analogies”59 that can help us “make
sense of numerous details that otherwise would seem purely acciden
tal.”60 Without glossing over dissimilarities, we can try to locate paral
lels that help “break out the relevant part of the narrative.”61 And while
remaining attentive to variation stemming from a host of factors,62 we
can begin to assess the generality of the findings from China and avoid
wrapping a concept around a single case.
One example of the claims characteristic of rightful resistance is the
“censoriousness” of Norwegian prison inmates, who base their demands
for better treatment on prison regulations and recognized principles of
justice (for example, equality). According to Thomas Mathiesen, such
prisoners “argue with the ruler on the basis of norms that the ruler also
agrees with, trying to convince the ruler that he has not correctly ad
hered to these principles.” These strict constructionists employ the
rhetoric and values of their jailers and the wider society while targeting
57 The subject of how to avoid abandoning categories prematurely when encompassing additional
cases is discussed in David Collier and James E. Mahon,Jr., “Conceptual’Stretching’ Revisited: Adapt
ing Categories in Comparative Analysis,” American Political Science Review 87 (December 1993).
58 Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in Geertz, ed.,
The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 27.
59 On “deep analogies,” see Charles Tilly, As Sociology Meets History (New York: Academic Press,
1981), 8.
60 The quoted text and a strong defense of pursuing “narrative ordering of circumstantial detail” can
be found in William H. Sewell, Jr., “Three Temporalities: Toward an Eventful Sociology” (Manuscript,
University of Chicago, February 1992).
61 Arthur L. Stinchcombe, Theoretical Methods in Social History (New York: Academic Press, 1978),
62 Some relevant factors are which government commitments resisters invoke, which elite advocates
are available, how political pressure is applied, and how willing authorities are to resort to ruining
rightful resisters outside the law.
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“personal regimes” and demanding “bureaucracy.”63 In their efforts to
domesticate power and render it predictable, they fall short of rightful
resistance mainly because few inmates are able to locate elite advocates
and because their potential for nonviolent political pressure is subject
to obvious limitations.
In contrast to an actual prison, apartheid-era South Africa offered
somewhat greater scope for using official values to goad concerned au
thorities into action. In Richard Abel’s account of opposition to the
“pass laws,”64 black plaintiffs and their legal advisers pointed to incon
sistent and ambiguous regulatory structures and demanded that the
government prove its commitment to the rule of law. Invoking South
Africa’s “liberal tradition” and Nationalist boasts about judicial inde
pendence, they contested racial discrimination “on the terrain of ideol
ogy” and “honored the regime’s pretensions by judging it in terms of
legality.” By framing their claims with reference to official values (in
cluding the sanctity of the family) and stressing misimplementation of
judicial decisions, they won over key insiders (including some
ment attorneys, large employers, and judges) who endorsed their ap
peals and urged obstructionist enforcement agencies to heed the law.
Although their foes hid behind procedural maneuvers and principles
that condoned apartheid, workers and their families were able to use
the language of power to win residency rights when obliging judges in
validated local rulings and condemned stalling tactics. Accommodating
elites played a central role in this contention, unlike the Norwegian ex
ample, but this case still falls short of rightful resistance because, by the
1980s, opponents of influx controls focused on single-client legal chal
lenges, while less institutionalized forms of political pressure (with the
exception of a small amount of squatting) were not employed.
In the most repressive regimes resistance is largely limited to
“weapons of the weak.”65 In slightly less controlled settings one or more
features of rightful resistance may appear. As sanctioned coercion di
minishes further and partial inclusion is formally extended, cases of
more complete rightful resistance become possible, as in rural China.
But what about further along the spectrum? In circumstances where
numerous rights are guaranteed, the rule of law is established, and po
litical participation is unquestionably legitimate, is rightful resistance
63 Mathiesen (fn. 19), 13, also 178,187.
64 Richard L. Abel, Politics by Other Means: Law in the Struggle against Apartheid, 1980-1994 (New
York: Routledge, 1995), 23-65; material in the rest of the paragraph is drawn from pages 62, 534,12,
65 On “weapons of the weak,” see Scott (fn. 9).
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still viable and effective? Consider Michael McCanns analysis of how
women workers in the United States employed legal strategies and col
lective action to
press for wage reforms.
According to McCann, several familiar approaches to law and social
change all share a skepticism “about the value of law for empowering
marginalized and even ordinary citizens.”66 Modern neorealists, he ex
plains, often portray litigation (concerning civil rights, women’s rights,
environmental protection, and so forth) as a “hollow hope,”67 a strategy
flawed by the limited resources that even congenial judges can muster
to implement their decisions.68 Structuralists, on the other hand, stress
the limited resources possessed by disadvantaged citizens themselves
and the unlikelihood these resources will be well spent on quixotic legal
battles where the probability of success is low.69 Even many Marxist
scholars emphasize how law can mystify the powerless and disguise
domination, largely by imposing definitions of property advantageous
to ruling groups and by sustaining dubious claims to legitimacy.70
Nonetheless, as McCann found in his study of the pay equity cam
paign in the United States, ordinary workers and movement organizers
had more access to the law than he had ever anticipated. Although pre
vailing legal discourses and practices were at times forces that ob
structed challenges to the status quo, they too could be a “source of
disorder and egalitarian reordering.” Litigation and other legal tactics,
in other words, were potent and flexible tools that enabled women’s
rights activists to employ existing statutes and recognized legal symbols
while still remaining somewhat separate from the prevailing legal order.
By the end of his research, McCann had come to question many
sumptions about the conservative impact of established legal practices
and was instead drawn to evidence of inventive tactical maneuvers and
“site-specific accommodations between domination and resistance.”71
And these tactical maneuvers originated on precisely the “old
ground” on which rightful resistance appears.72 In the United States
this meant appropriating a “rights talk” that had long offered reform ac
tivists a normative language for identifying, interpreting, and challeng
67 Gerald N. Rosenberg, The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring about Social Change? (Chicago: Uni
versity of Chicago Press, 1991).
Ibid., 293-95.
70 For a critique of this view, see E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 258-61.
71 McCann (fn. 5). Cites in the paragraph are drawn from pages ix, 12, 9.
72 On resistance that commences on “old ground,” see Alan Hunt, “Rights and Social Movements:
Counter-Hegemonic Strategies,” fournal of Law and Society 17 (Autumn 1990), 313, 320, 324.
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ing discrimination. In particular, comparable worth advocates borrowed
from a decades-old discourse about equal rights, discrimination, and
segregation that had become part of everyday understandings and ex
pectations. They then used this language to express their demands for
reworked wage scales, draping calls for reform in evocative and com
paratively uncontroversial appeals to fairness and equity.73
In the course of mastering a new tongue, pay equity activists found it
advantageous to couple broad references to widely accepted values with
appeals to specific laws and regulations, at both the state and the federal
levels. Accordingly, movement participants drew on explicit comparable
worth, pay equity, and equal pay statutes, as well as more general equal
rights, antidiscrimination, civil service, and fair employment measures.
Most notably, several Supreme Court decisions, the Equal Pay Act of
1963, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and various executive orders regarding
affirmative action were all repeatedly cited when attacking wage dis
crimination in the courts.74
Established law thus offered a framework for equity activists to make
sense of their circumstances and to ground their resistance. At the same
time, evolving antidiscrimination norms made it possible to take ad
vantage of the flexibility of the American rights tradition to cloak new
claims in old cloth. By urging, for instance, that job evaluation methods
previously used to justify hierarchy be reinterpreted to support salary
increases for low-ranking workers, legal strategists appropriated “the
master s tool to challenge the master.” In their actions on the courtroom
steps and in the courtroom alike, pay equity activists shrewdly framed
even their more radical demands in terms of loyalty to established prin
ciples while professing little more than a desire to make the legal sys
tem “live up to what it was supposed to be.”75
Breaking through the silence and pursuing their claims depended on
a series of timely events?some of which occurred apart from the
movement, some of which were engineered by campaign activists
themselves. In the first place, the overarching political opportunity
structure76 had to change in ways that supported, or at least allowed, ar
ticulation of new claims by individuals concerned with gender justice.
At the same time, early arrivals had to become aware that the political
landscape had become more advantageous, and they then had to exploit
73 McCann (fn. 5), 49,101,245-58.
Ibid., 41,48-50.
Ibid., 298-99,185-86,234.
76 For a discussion of this concept, see Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement (New York Cambridge
University Press, 1994), 17-18, chap. 5.
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this realization to draw in additional participants who were willing to
devote time, energy, and resources to the campaign. Both of these con
ditions were effectively met by the late 1970s, as more women entered
the workforce, the womens’ movement matured, and an accommodat
ing Carter administration made it possible for participation in the cam
paign to
appear sensible to prospective participants.77
With awareness, expectations, and organizational resources mount
ing, a few high-profile legal victories then helped convince even more
recruits that wage structures could be altered and that a meaningful
space for grassroots action had opened up. Buoyed by their successes,
organizing national legal challenges and local pressure
on employers
became easier, as previously uninvolved workers and long-standing ac
tivists came to believe they were acting at a particularly auspicious mo
ment, ripe with possibilities for reform.78
To increase their leverage and institutionalize their gains, activists
also had to locate influential backers, particularly ones who would take
up the cause within the federal and state governments. Among the
movement’s champions were a handful of government administrators
who were responsive to the campaign’s “realistic radicalism.” Some fed
eral officials had in fact endorsed pay equity reform from an early date:
lawyers and officials in the Department of Labor and Equal Employ
ment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were instrumental in develop
ing and initially publicizing the notion of comparable worth, whereas
committees on the status of women and elected female representatives
and their staffs had pressed pay equity reform in several dozen states
and the U.S. Congress.79 Other officials, however, opposed reform from
the start, and withdrawal of support was not uncommon. The EEOC
and federal judges, for example, were generally receptive to pay equity
claims during the Carter administration, but the Reagan years brought
a more hostile response to litigation and other political pressure.
To their credit, movement activists found ways to endure and even
exploit their fair-weather friends in the federal government. The pay
equity campaign grew,
even though not a single, unambiguous judicial
endorsement of its underlying comparable worth theory managed to
survive appellate review. Resourceful equity advocates needed only a
tiny opening for their resistance to develop a momentum of its own.
Even after judicial defeats became commonplace during the 1980s,
77 McCann (fn. 5), chap. 4.
Ibid., 64,74, 89.
Ibid., 276,52,123-29.
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movement organizers persevered. In fact, frustration with Reagan-era
interpretations of civil rights law led to a redeployment of organiza
tional resources from legal campaigns to collective bargaining, lobby
ing, and other forms of grassroots collective action. And this strategic
retreat seems to have catalyzed rather than retarded the movement.80
In the end the campaign s successes arose from using “law as a club”
and “bargaining in the shadow of the law.” Legal tactics heightened un
certainty, which posed risks to employers and created a favorable envi
ronment for negotiation. Although more confrontational forms of
defiance were rendered impractical by the reliance on existing channels
of inclusion and on advocates within the executive and judicial
branches, the campaign did help alter workplace practices and pro
moted other efforts to enhance workplace rights, even as the movement
itself was contained.81
The attempt to win equal pay for women workers in the United
States nicely exhibits the attributes of rightful resistance:
?the reliance on established principles to anchor defiance
?the use of legitimating myths and persuasive normative language to frame
?the attention to existing statutes when leveling charges
?the recognition and exploitation of a newly congenial opportunity structure
?the importance of advocates, however uncertain, within officialdom
?the combination of legal tactics with grassroots collective action
?the disavowal of overtly revolutionary alternatives
?and the partial victories and built-in limitations of a form of resistance that
embraces values endorsed by conscientious political and economic elites
Rightful resistance in a democracy, as illustrated by McCann, is one
way that dissatisfied citizens try to make officials and business leaders
“prisoners of their own rhetoric.”82 It is a form of contention ideally
suited to pursue
new rights claims because at its heart lies the emi
nently reasonable expectation that rules and norms which usually rein
force dominance should be equitably and universally enforced.
Enterprising rightful resisters in a nation such as the United States
have astutely recognized that legal symbols and norms create practical
obligations that can be used to mobilize the discontented and to limit
the abuse of power.83 They know, along with E. R Thompson, that for
Ibid., 58,53, 64, 85-86.
Ibid., chap. 5,140,143,220,285,232,281-82.
82 See Thompson (fn. 70), 263.
83 McCann (fn. 5), 297-98.
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the law and other official norms to
appear just, they must, sometimes,
be just.84
Rightful resisters may
act out of conviction or they may strategically
manipulate official norms. Most often, their motivations probably com
bine elements of both sincerity and cynicism. Whatever the case, they
are adept at picking out where claims to authority He and at maneuver
ing within systems that otherwise control them.85 They have partly cast
off the “mind-forged manacles”86 through which law reaps obedience
and deference, and have recognized that the weaknesses of any would
be hegemonic ideology provide grounds for resistance.
III. Rightful Resistance, Rights Consciousness,
and Political Change
Concepts may not be about outcomes, but politics is. In the final analy
sis, the significance of any form of popular contention depends on its
effects. What consequences does rightful resistance have for those who
wage it and for wider political change?
In the United States, McCann concludes, the greatest impact of the
pay equity campaign was on the activists themselves: participation in
the movement affected their “hearts, minds, and social identities” by
transforming their “understandings, commitments, and affiliations.” As
previously unvoiced or whispered objections grew into loudly asserted
claims, thousands of working women became proficient at generating
on employers and “mobilizing rights as a political resource.”
Rather than being lulled by the law and its ability to confer legitimacy,
they broke its spell and used legal practices and institutions to create
protected spaces in which to act. In the end, taking rights seriously
“opened up
more than closed debates, exposed more than masked sys
temic injustices, stirred more than pacified discontents, and nurtured
more than retarded the development of solidarity.” Instead of reinforc
ing prevailing power relations, rights advocacy sparked dialogues, vali
Thompson (fn. 70), 263. Hunt (fn. 72), 311, has also noted, in discussing Gramscis understand
ing of the relationship of law to social change, that “for a hegemonic project to be dominant it must ad
dress and incorporate, if only partially, some aspects of the aspirations, interests, and ideology of
subordinate groups.” 85 For this point in a different context, see Paul E. Willis, Learning to Labour: How Working Class
Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Westmead, England: Saxon House, 1977), 26-27.
Douglas Hay, “Property, Authority and the Criminal Law,” in Douglas Hay et al., Albions Fatal
Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Allen Lane, 1975). Although Hay al
lows for resistance based on law (p. 34), he focuses on the persuasiveness of law as ideology and its con
tribution to legitimacy. “Mind-forged manacles” are discussed on p. 49.
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dated new ways of thinking, posed troubling questions, and spurred a
desire for political change.87
A similar process, but with a very different starting point, may be
under way in China. Even though aggrieved villagers often advance
their claims using elite homilies, their actions reflect new understand
ings and aspirations and spring from a creative reworking of official
rights talk. Enterprising Chinese villagers are busy appropriating au
thorized rights discourses and extending them into new areas. They are
mastering the changing language of power and are demanding, in par
ticular, that quarrels with rogue cadres be resolved like contract dis
putes88?fairly, without reference to the identities of the parties
involved, and in accord with some sort of procedural regularity. Dis
playing an increasingly sophisticated rights consciousness, rural Chi
to be invoking central policies not so much because they
believe existing power relations are just but because this strategy pro
duces leverage in a world of unequal resources.89 There is little evi
dence, for instance, that dissatisfied villagers are unaware of continuing
exploitation or are in any way taken in by pro-peasant propaganda; in
stead they seem to view central policies as tools that can
expose the pre
tensions of eHtes who claim to rule in their interest.
To imagine that rightful resistance can remake a political system
from top to bottom is a lot to expect from a form of contention that is,
by its nature, mindful and circumscribed. Lasting impacts of this form
of contention are more likely to be mediated, a
consequence of intensi
fied rights consciousness in populations that are experiencing “cogni
tive liberation” and recognize their capacity for action is growing.90 In
the United States, McCann notes, the legacy of pay equity reform in
cluded other, more significant advances that “matched or exceeded
wage gains.” The movement, for instance, increased sensitivity to social
wrongs and strengthened organizational ties, as
pay equity became a
“symbol for a broad and growing political agenda of gender based re
form in the workplace.” The cohesion and solidarity forged in one
87 McCann (fn. 5), 230,276,232,269.
88 On the growing importance of contracts even in remote rural areas, see Lester Ross, “The Chang
ing Profile of Dispute Resolution in Rural China: The Case of Zouping County,” Stanford Journal of
International Law 26 (Fall 1989), 63.
89 This language is borrowed from McCann (fn. 5), 232. In China many villagers have shown them
selves to be remarkably attentive to cadre misconduct related to birth control implementation. This is
probably not because they desire conscientious enforcement of family planning but rather because any
violation of a “national policy” can be used to weaken a cadre and secure high-level support. Interview
with villager, 1994; interview with village cadre, 1994.
90 On “cognitive liberation,” see McAdam (fn. 11), 34.
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struggle swiftly spilled over to other, often more successful campaigns
for improved child care, sexual harassment regulations, parental leave,
and health care for pregnant women.91
In China the subversive implications of rightful resistance may reach
even deeper. Apart from restraining rapacious cadres and increasing
accountability, rightful resistance may also presage the stirrings of a
more far-reaching counterhegemonic project. In other words, although
successful rightful resistance probably enhances regime legitimacy in
the short term, some villagers may graduate from combating illegal
mistreatment to combating legal mistreatment. And indeed, there is al
ready scattered evidence of rural resistance to systematic discrimina
tion, for example, efforts to overturn household registration policies
that keep villagers out of the cities.92
But even if many villagers embrace established values and even if offi
cials at higher levels continue to be seen as indispensable intercessors, we
should not underestimate the potential consequences of growing rights
consciousness in a nation where rights have traditionally been poorly
protected. Rightful resisters, in a word, are subalterns, but they may not
be as constrained in thought as Gramsci suggests or as constrained in
action as Scott suggests.93 As villagers refashion and recombine familiar
elements in the repertoire of contention and exploit new opportunities
to press fresh claims, their defiance may extend beyond the strict con
structionism that normally constrains them. When rightful resisters
cite peoples congresses
as a model for turning villagers, representative
assemblies into policy-making bodies,94 or claim that the principle of
mass line democracy entitles them to vote in party primaries,95 or use
vague clauses stipulating direct election to demand open nominating
procedures, their resistance is both “loyal” and proactive.96 It is simulta
91 McCann (fn. 5), 281,271,282,269,264-69.
92 Li Kang, “Jiceng zhengquan yu jiceng shequ” (Grassroots government and grassroots commu
nity), in Li Xueju, Wang Zhenyao and Tang Jinsu, eds., Zhongguo Xiangzhen Zhengquan de Xian
zhuangyu Gaige (Current situation and reform of Chinese township government) (Beijing: Zhongguo
Shehui Chubanshe, 1994), 267.
93 For Scott’s reversal of Gramsci, see Scott (fn. 4), 90-91. Scott’s position is complex, and some of
the evidence he considers in his discussion suggests less constraint in action than his turning of Gram
sci upside down implies (pp. 94-107).
94 Interview with village party secretary, 1993; interview with deputy village party secretary, 1993.
95 Li Jingyi, “Nongcun ‘zhiluan qishi lu” (Reflections on overcoming disorder in the countryside)
(Paper by a county party secretary in Hebei Province, 1992). A shortened version of this article ap
peared in Hebei Nongcun Gongzuo, no. 8 (August 1992), 14-15.
96 On proactive claims in rural China, see, respectively, Perry (fnn. 33, 34); and Lianjiang Li and
Kevin J. O’Brien, “Villagers and Popular Resistance in Contemporary China,” Modern China 23 (Jan
uary 1996). On competitive, reactive, and proactive claims in rural Europe, see Charles Tilly, “Rural
Collective Action in Modern Europe,” in Joseph Spielberg and Scott Whiteford, eds., Forging Nations:
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neously a means to advance ones interests within existing limits and a
way to assert new rights and pry open channels of participation that
few power holders at
any level could have foreseen.
Chinese policymakers have many instruments of repression but few
means to co-opt the discontented or soften their demands. Politically,
the huge disparity between what is promised and what villagers experi
ence creates openings for rightful resisters to challenge blatant miscon
duct, obvious evasion of central intent, and flagrant violations of
recognized rights. In this sense, Chinese villagers may be more like
American civil rights activists of the early 1960s than like pay equity
campaigners of the 1980s. Speaking both as and for people who are
closer to subjects than citizens, they risk repression daily and face for
midable collective action hurdles but are well positioned to “win big”
(that is, to reorder power relations), provided they do not “lose big”
(that is, end up being crushed by their local opponents) first.
Rightful resistance is a hardy perennial that can sprout wherever
leaders make commitments they cannot keep. A partly institutionalized
form of contention, it works largely within (yet at the edges of) an ex
isting opportunity structure, and it may be more consequential than
most “everyday resistance” but still less risky than uninstitutionalized
defiance. Its successes come about not because its practitioners remain
unobtrusive or because they are insulated from hegemonic penetra
tion,97 but because they openly and opportunistically engage the struc
ture of domination (and pierce the hegemony) at its weakest point.
Using the raw material at hand, rightful resisters align themselves with
lawful authority, however it is constituted, and confront power holders
who compromise the ideals that justify their rule. So long as a
ists between rights promised and rights delivered, there is always room
for rightful resistance to emerge.
A Comparative View of Rural Ferment and Revolt (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press,
1976). More recently, Tilly has preferred to speak of repertoires of contention, but others continue to
find value in his trichotomy. See William H. Sewell, Jr., “Collective Violence and Collective Loyalties
in France: Why the French Revolution Made a Difference,” Politics and Society 18 (December 1990),
97 On the advantages of insulation from hegemonic discourses, see James Scott, “Hegemony and the
Peasantry,” Politics and Society 7, no. 3 (1977), 267-96. My treatment of engaging the hegemony is
closer to that developed in Scott (fn. 4), 94-107; and Susan F. Hirsch and Mindie Lazarus-Black,
“Performance and Paradox: Exploring Law’s Role in Hegemony and Resistance,” in Mindie Lazarus
Black and Susan F. Hirsch, eds., Contested States: Law, Hegemony and Resistance (New York Routledge,
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