It is impossible to understand the nature of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) without considering its countless mass campaigns (qunzhong yundong) directed by the party-state since its founding in 1949. Jennifer Altehenger’s stimulating monograph Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1989 is an attempt to address one of these campaigns: the long-running legal propaganda effort through which the Chinese Communist state disseminated information about the law among the populace.
Legal Lessons covers two periods of Chinese propaganda regarding the law. The first period, from 1949 to 1962, concerns how propagandists, including publishing authorities, publishers, censors, and cultural workers, carried out systematic work to educate citizens and mobilize them to support laws as well as the socialist state (21). The author focuses on the 1952 Judicial Reform Movement, the 1953 Marriage Law campaign, and the drafting of the first constitution (1954). The second period, from the 1970s to the 1980s, in contrast to the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), during which lawlessness reigned, reflects the party-state’s pressing need to revive and disseminate legal knowledge to restore law and order in the country. This campaign was conducted most notably through a series of four national constitution discussions (1970 draft, 1975, 1978, 1982) and a five-year plan for the “popularization of common legal knowledge” that was initiated in 1985. The five-year plan, according to the author, was a continuation of the party-state’s long-standing practice of both institutionalizing and utilizing laws as a tool for effective governance.