Disembedding lawful activism in contemporary China : The confrontational politics of a green NGO’s legal mobilization

Research output: Journal Publications and ReviewsRGC 21 - Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)224-243
Journal / PublicationChina Information
Issue number2
Online published4 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018


Recent legal reforms in China, particularly amendments in 2014 to the Environmental Protection Law, have encouraged environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) to embrace legal strategies in their advocacy. However, the wider significance of such strategies remains understudied and underestimated. This article examines one such example in Xiamen, Fujian Province, where an ENGO, incensed by the conversion of walkways into parking spaces, led the first administrative lawsuit in the name of ‘pedestrians’ rights’ (行人路权) in China in early 2015. Based on digital ethnography and participant observation, the case illustrates three salient points: first, legal mobilization is conflict-laden and confrontational; second, depoliticized legal actions belie the development of popular critical consciousness; and third, professional ties have become more instrumental than connections with state officials. The net result is then an embedded activism that evinces disembedding tensions. This questions conventional expectations over Chinese environmental activism, that it is non-confrontational and overdependent on personal relations with local officials. In addition to elucidating the disembedding processes and experiences absent in previous ENGO literature, this exploratory research offers a snapshot of lawful activism among environmentalists, illustrating the wider opportunities and challenges accompanying ‘the turn to law’.

Research Area(s)

  • administrative litigation, environmental NGOs (ENGOs), legal campaign, rule of law, social resistance