Does Legality Produce Political Legitimacy? An Experimental Approach
This article studies whether “pure” legality, stripped of the normative components that are conceptually necessary for “the rule of law,” can convey meaningful amounts of perceived legitimacy to governmental institutions and activity. Through a survey experiment conducted among urban Chinese residents, it examines whether such conveyance is possible under current Chinese sociopolitical conditions, in which the Party-state continues to invest heavily in “pure legality,” but without imposing meaningful legal checks on the Party leadership’s political power, and without corresponding investment in substantive civil rights or socioeconomic freedoms. Among survey respondents, government investment in legality conveys meaningful amounts of political legitimacy, even when it is applied to actions, such as online speech censorship, that are socially controversial or unattractive, and even when such investment does not clearly enhance the predictability of state behavior. However, the legitimacy-enhancing effects of legality are likely weaker than those of state investment in procedural justice.