Dear Lawyer Bao: Everyday Problems, Legal Advice, and State Power in China

Social Problems, Vol. 55, 2008

58 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2006

See all articles by Ethan Michelson

Ethan Michelson

Maurer School of Law; Indiana University Bloomington, Department of Sociology


This paper presents findings from a content analysis of all 460 Dear Lawyer Bao (DLB) legal advice columns ever published in its ten-year history (1989-98) in the Beijing Evening News. While much sociolegal research has focused on the exercise of power in the legal process through the control of meaning in verbal, private face-to-face interactions, this paper reveals similar meaning-making processes at play in publicly disseminated writing where the audience is far larger, the potential impact far wider, and the role of the state far greater. Lawyer Bao's popular image as valiant defender of ordinary people in trouble obscured and thus enhanced both the degree to which he was beholden to the state and the effectiveness with which he did the bidding of the state against the interests of the very letter-writers he purported to help. His ultimate allegiance to the state is reflected in two empirical patterns. First, the temporal distribution of problem topics featured in the DLB column corresponds less to shifts in public sentiment or objective popular needs and more to legislation, policy shifts, and political campaigns. Second, whether Lawyer Bao legitimized or delegitimized letter-writers' claims was determined primarily by the extent to which state interests were at stake in the problem at hand. Lawyer Bao tended to delegitimize labor grievances, housing demolition, collective grievances of any kind, and other claims construed as potentially destabilizing or of challenge to state priorities.

Keywords: China, law, media, culture, power

JEL Classification: L82, K40, P20, P30, P31, N45

Suggested Citation

Michelson, Ethan, Dear Lawyer Bao: Everyday Problems, Legal Advice, and State Power in China. Social Problems, Vol. 55, 2008, Available at SSRN: or

Ethan Michelson (Contact Author)

Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States
812-856-1521 (Phone)
812-855-0781 (Fax)


Indiana University Bloomington, Department of Sociology ( email )

Ballantine Hall
Bloomington, IN 47405

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