Q&A with Jennifer Altehenger, Author of Legal Lessons

Jennifer Altehenger is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese History at King’s College London (Associate Professor in Chinese History at the University of Oxford from September 2019) and author of Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1989 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2018). In Legal Lessons, Altehenger surveys how knowledge about the law was disseminated among ordinary people in Beijing and Shanghai between the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and the mass demonstrations and brutal crackdown of 1989. In the early 1950s, she explains, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quickly implemented a new legal regime for the PRC, one of many ways that it sought to establish a definitive break between the “New China” and the “old society” that had come before. Though China’s leadership asserted that the country’s new laws were created by and for its citizens, most people in fact knew very little about these statutes. Thus, the CCP initiated campaigns focused on mass legal education, intended both to spread knowledge about the letter of the law and also to make citizens aware of the rights and duties assigned to them.

At various times over the following years, the CCP oversaw campaigns to study and discuss the New Marriage Law, different iterations of the PRC constitution, and other regulations. The PRC, Altehenger writes, “stands out in the history of the modern state for its repeated attempts to mobilize China’s citizens to learn laws.” The efforts of the CCP to disseminate legal knowledge among the country’s citizens took place in fits and starts, encountering many obstacles and often resulting in unintended consequences—yet this project continues up to the present day. Mobilizing a source base of archival documents, newspaper articles, and works of popular culture, Altehenger traces the history of mass legal education over four decades of modern Chinese history and explains why law propagation, despite its challenges, has been a recurring element of CCP governance since 1949.

To learn more about Legal Lessons, I interviewed Jennifer Altehenger via email.

MEC: Why was the popularization of laws important to the CCP after it came to power in 1949? How did the genre of law propaganda differ from other types of propaganda in the early PRC?

JA: Getting word out about new laws that affect citizens and/or require citizens’ participation is important to any state and especially to a young state that seeks to establish legitimacy. In this sense, the CCP followed in the footsteps of imperial and Republican governments before it, and also in its own footsteps of work conducted in border regions before 1949. How the CCP went about popularizing laws, however, was remarkable. The CCP’s basic premise was that laws were a product of the mass line; that is, that they were written in response to the concrete needs of the masses. Once promulgated, laws would then have to be returned to the masses by way of dissemination and education. Only then would people be able to use laws as a “weapon” (wuqi) in the struggle to create a “new society.” For this to work, legal language would have to be as simple and accessible as possible. “Legalese” was criticized as a “bourgeois” tool to limit legal knowledge and interpretation to elite circles.

In the course of the early 1950s, the popularization of laws, often called law propaganda (falü xuanchuan or fazhi xuanchuan), became a part of the CCP’s larger propaganda and education system. In many ways, law propaganda did not differ from other types of propaganda: for example, the same genres were used, from posters to songs, dances, stories, drama and opera, and exhibitions. In some respects, however, law propaganda was significantly different and this caused all sorts of difficulties for government and party officials at all levels. For example, propaganda was meant to reliably explain how laws should be implemented. Laws could of course be read in different ways. Yet propaganda was not meant to interpret laws, and where the difference between explanation and interpretation lay was a constant source of discussion and worry. Cultural workers in different cities and institutions designed propaganda materials while censors [not only] in Beijing but also in local government and party offices scrutinized them. Some had previous legal experience, but many did not. Still, they all assumed some of the roles of legal professionals and became arbiters of what laws meant; a challenging position to be in. These kinds of problems were less of an issue in propaganda for public health, for example.

MEC: The first mass campaign focused on dissemination of legal knowledge was one carried out in 1953 to spread understanding of the New Marriage Law promulgated in 1950. How was this distinctive from other political campaigns in the first years of the PRC, and what lessons did government officials draw from it?

JA: The CCP strove to popularize laws right from the start, with varying intensity. But it was only in 1953 that the popularization of law, in that case the Marriage Law, was organized into a national “mass campaign” (qunzhong yundong). The term “mass campaign” was significant. It signaled that the CCP had elevated law dissemination and implementation to the same status as selected other early ‘50s mass campaigns; the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, Land Reform, and the Three- and Five-Anti Campaigns. According to the CCP’s own directives, the Marriage Law mass campaign was meant to be different from these other mass campaigns because it would be completely focused on education, propaganda, and careful implementation. It was to be a campaign dealing with matters among the people (unlike the other four campaigns that dealt with enemies of the people). That distinction worked well on paper, but less so in practice. When people—officials and ordinary residents alike—learned or were told about this new mass campaign, they of course connected it to what they knew about other mass campaigns. The distinctions were too fine for many, and the focus on propaganda and education often confusing. Some people tried to organize the usual mass campaign events, including public accusation sessions and trials, only to be instructed to reorganize everything because these were inadequate kinds of propaganda for Marriage Law dissemination. Other people thought that a campaign that focused on education only wasn’t a big deal and wouldn’t need much attention. These are two examples that highlight two extremes, but the result was that the CCP spent as much time trying to manage misunderstandings about what this campaign would do, as it did actually implementing the law.

What lessons government officials drew depends on where we look. For many, the early years of law propaganda suggested that law was somehow different from other kinds of policy. Some tried to avoid it for that reason. For some, the lesson was that law propaganda would need much more supervision, and that party and government had to develop better ways to ensure laws were understood correctly. What understanding exactly was “correct” could be a contentious question. Documents, moreover, often discussed “incorrect” understandings in terms of “left” and “right” errors. Being too harsh in implementing laws was usually seen as a “left” error, while being too lenient towards “bad elements” in society was a “right” error. But of course, what made for harsh and lenient implementation was again a matter of interpretation.

MEC: Determining how audiences received anything is always difficult, but what were some of the responses to these law popularization campaigns that you were able to find in historical documents?

JA: The available documents—from archival records to different kinds of “internal” publications (issued by propaganda departments, public security bureaus, etc.)—reflect the broad range of responses we might expect to find anywhere upon circulation of a new law. Many welcomed learning about new laws, for different reasons. Some reasons were naturally very personal because these laws opened new possibilities for legal redress or guaranteed new rights. Many people welcomed the laws but didn’t really see a connection to their own life, and some didn’t want to participate in legal learning because it seemed irrelevant to them personally. Take the example that opens the book: a man in Wuxi who sarcastically complained in 1954 that with so many new laws there should really be a law to stop it from raining.

Many, meanwhile, thought laws were not needed. Many more were confused by the intensity of law propaganda or the way it was carried out. One 1953 report from Beijing, for instance, notes how residents criticized local cadres for being too simplistic in their approach to the Marriage Law; those residents thought that it was not at all easy to say what behavior or what legal interpretation was definitely right and wrong. These kinds of responses, by the way, were not limited to the 1950s. Archival documents of the 1970 and 1982 constitution discussions noted similar reactions. Report writers, meanwhile, tried to categorize the people’s diverse responses within ideologically-driven frameworks. Official documents recording responses are therefore most useful as a mirror of what officials thought was worth recording, and raise questions about what was not noted down. That is interesting because it can help reveal how government and party officials at different levels conceptualized laws and popular legal education, at least for official purposes.

MEC: Something that comes up frequently in Legal Lessons is that the circulation of legal knowledge was a double-edged sword for the CCP: it wanted people to understand the country’s laws, but that knowledge often led to public demands that the Party-state enforce those laws or uphold the rights of citizens in ways that it had not been doing. How did CCP officials deal with this dilemma?

JA: This dilemma is central to the book and it is important also because it is not restricted to a communist or authoritarian system. We can probably find examples across history, in China but also elsewhere. That being said, it certainly gained enormous importance in China after 1949 because the CCP tied the popularization of law to its mass line policy and the claim that its legal system would work better for the masses than previous legal systems. The resulting dilemma is similar to the one that emerged from promises of a material plenty after 1949. CCP officials dealt with it in different ways. Already in 1952, Zhou Enlai and others repeatedly stressed that law implementation would take a lot of time. Meanwhile, the “pedagogical state” assumed a crucial function. Put simply, mass legal education served two purposes: to disseminate legal knowledge widely, but also to control and manage how people understood laws. When people interpreted laws in ways that did not align with party policy, or even at times more simply with what a local official was interested in doing or not doing, they were often told that they had misunderstood the law. Common explanations were that people interpreted laws too personally and too individually. Sometimes, officials framed people’s criticism as a product of their class background and lack of political consciousness. There were huge variations across localities, moreover, depending also on personal circumstances and interests. That makes it so interesting to trace the popularization of laws.

MEC: Your book is distinctive among works of history for covering a topic from the early years of the PRC through the 1980s, rather than stopping with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Why did you decide to write about such a lengthy period of time, and what were the challenges in doing so?

JA: The popularization of law is an established component of CCP governance today. This is the result of the CCP’s decision in the 1980s to bring law propaganda back and turn it into a regularized practice subject to five-year plans. I wanted to trace this development and official thinking about why and how to popularize laws from the early days after 1949 to the 1980s. During the 1980s, many people who learned about laws or who were told that they had to learn about laws were old enough to have participated already in earlier law propaganda waves. They made connections to what they knew from previous decades. A focus on the Mao Era (1949-1976) would have imposed an artificial divide and suggested that the period associated with the Cultural Revolution was more divisive in the case of law propaganda than it actually was. Moreover, we now have some access to archival documents from the 1970s and 1980s, so the sources also did not necessitate such a divide.

The challenges of covering a longer period were plenty, and some things had to give. The book came to focus on state-led education efforts, with some but not much analysis of popular understanding and just about no discussion of the practice and application of laws. I could not include two aspects in particular. The book does not say much about the period of the Cultural Revolution. Until 1970 there was little law propaganda and even then there was not much until the mid-1970s. Writing about this time would have required more systematic engagement with popular uses of law and grassroots legal work, for which there was unfortunately no space. To anyone interested in this, I warmly recommend the volume Victims, Perpetrators, and the Role of Law in Maoist China, edited by Puck Engman and Daniel Leese. I also had to drop a final chapter on China’s exchanges with other socialist countries on the subject of law propaganda (though that will hopefully follow as an article at some point).

MEC: You’ve been vocal about the value of utilizing archives outside of China and have written for the PRC History Review about the benefits of casting a wide archival net. How did you come to explore the resources available elsewhere, and do you have any tips for researchers who would like to do the same but aren’t sure how to start?

JA: A comparative perspective made sense for this project because I wanted to know how to evaluate China’s law propaganda efforts in the larger socialist and post-war context. When I started, there was little research on this topic. I speak German, sadly not Russian, so that took me to German archives. In the German Federal Archives I found materials that historians of the GDR had not made much of yet. Read in conjunction with other sources, these documents revealed more than the familiar story of China learning from foreign countries. That story was certainly there, most obviously in the CCP’s study and adaptation of the 1936 Stalin constitution discussion. But there was another dimension: of the PRC having advanced experience in law propaganda that other socialist countries wanted to learn from during the 1980s. As a result, I was able to argue for the significance of Chinese law propaganda in post-war history more generally.

As for tips, I’d say explore. It is always fun to check out new archives wherever I go. Sometimes I don’t get in. Sometimes I do and there’s nothing interesting. But quite often unexpected places have intriguing holdings related to China. Casting the net broadly can lead to pleasant surprises and new research questions. And many archivists and librarians who do not usually work on China are enthusiastic about exploring parts of their collection they don’t know so well.

MEC: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that Legal Lessons is published?

JA: Stuff. Literally. I am working on a project that explores the history of everyday industrial design and materials in twentieth-century China, mostly post-‘49. So I am spending my days looking through sources on the design, production, use, and re-use of furniture, lighting, plastic goods, and so on. I am learning a lot about different materials such as wood, engineered wood, bamboo, rattan, plastic, metal, and glass, about material sciences, chemistry, architecture, design and other subjects. It’s wonderful; at times positively mind-boggling and also quite humbling when I listen to people’s stories. It brings me to new places and new museums, and I don’t think I will ever look at any object and material in the same way again. And I am seriously considering taking up carpentry classes. That whole discussion about the significance of “practice” has left its mark. The project has great “side effects” too: I know much more about DIY now, and I could make my own fiberboard (though our London flat is too small, so that had to be postponed).