A new paper by Helle Blomquist
The notorious gap between socialist ideals of gender equality on the one hand, and the patriarchal reality in the People’s Republic on the other has not been bridged by economic development: Particularly when it comes to political participation, women remain underrepresented. In a small but insightful case study (PDF available here), Helle Blomquist asked in how far legal professionals may play a helpful role to end the severe gender inequalities in Chinese society.
My case study in a Chinese provincial city has given me hopes for the Chinese legal profession and its work for the advancement of gender equality as a value in the modern Chinese state. If gender equality is a goal, lawyers in China may facilitate progress towards this goal in the Chinese population. They may accomplish this through communicating values of gender equality to their clients and thereby presenting feasible options that empower women. In doing so, they function as intermediaries between the modern state with a Marxist ideology of equality and a population with traditional values.
Why is this interesting? Over the years, Western Chinese studies have shown that even though the Chinese government has implemented laws to advance equality, culture has been a drawback. Equality is part-and-parcel of Marxist ideology, as Simone de Beauvoir’s works demonstrates. However, the cleavage between the high-flying Chinese government policy and a traditional population in some cases is too wide. The main finding from my case study points to legal professionals as a ‘missing link’ to bridge this cleavage. Their function however may depend on their individual awareness of their role, their support of gender equality, and their position vis-à-vis the state and party.
The professionals had varied positions: one law professor, a judge, a practicing lawyer, and two project workers. The law professor runs a legal clinic, where she influenced her students and suggested solutions for the clients seeking advice to solve their legal conflicts. The project workers aimed to empower villagers to organize. Both, the project workers and the law professor found solutions for their clients, based on the law and advancing the maximum of equality within the law. They planned their consulting sessions in a way that would encourage women to seek their own solutions and investigate their rights under the law rather than resorting to traditional mechanisms. The judge decided on divorce cases and she had the same aim, but saw herself limited by the law. The practicing lawyer represented clients at court in criminal and commercial cases. He also communicated gender values, even if more traditional ones. A reaction from a law student demonstrated that this made an imprint on her, thereby demonstrating that communication of values matter, in the case of the practicing lawyer the effect would more likely advance barriers against gender equality.
This brings me to the drawbacks I found. Firstly, the bias of the legal professional may influence the values communicated, independent of government policy. Other drawbacks are more subtle. In analyzing them, I drew on classical sociological theory, namely Talcott Parsons’ idea of malfunctions. The legal professional may be under pressure from the state, as for instance the judge in my sample, and in this resort to formalism that will impair her ability to communicate equality. The project worker may identify with his or her clients and exaggerate the client’s case. A practicing lawyer may be likely to adopt a position of self-interest and try to act as gatekeeper to the profession.
A case study cannot reveal anything concerning the extent of the findings, of course. I conducted my study in a single city at a specific time. The practice I detected may change, and it may turn out differently in other cities and government policy and pressures may change. However, my case study showed a potential.
You may find the whole paper, as published in the Naveiñ Reet, Nordic Journal of Law and Social Research (NNJLSR), No. 9, 2020 here.