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Neither transgressive nor contained: Boundary-spanning contention in China

Abstract

In studies of popular politics a split exists. Some scholars focus on rather tame forms of participation while others become interested mainly when political action spills out onto the streets. This article considers acts located near the boundary between official, prescribed politics and politics by other means. It explores popular pressure that is arguably legal, permissible in some eyes but not in others. The episodes of boundary-spanning contention examined center on implementing elections in rural China. What is to be gained by investigating this form of contention? First, it promises a better understanding of causal processes insofar as it draws attention to state and movement trajectories. Second, it can help close the gap between analysts who study the dynamics of contention and those who are concerned with the consequences of contention. Third, it promises to bring the relationship between states and contentious politics into clearer focus. Finally, studying boundary-spanning acts can help locate a regime across a number of dimensions: what is institutionalized and what is not, what is participation and what is resistance, who is a challenger and who is a polity member, what citizenship entails and who enjoys it.

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