Malpractice Mobs: Medical Dispute Resolution in China

Benjamin L. Liebman, Columbia Law School


China has experienced a surge in medical disputes in recent years, on the streets and in the courts. Many disputes result in violence. Quantitative and qualitative empirical evidence of medical malpractice litigation and medical disputes in China reveals a dynamic in which the formal legal system operates in the shadow of protest and violence. The threat of violence leads hospitals to settle claims for more than would be available in court and also influences how judges handle cases that do wind up in court. The detailed evidence regarding medical disputes presented in this article adds depth to existing understanding of institutional development in China, showing that increased innovation and competence are not resulting in greater authority for the courts. Despite thirty-four years of legal reforms and significant strengthening of legal institutions, the shadow of the law remains weak. Medical cases highlight largely unobserved trends in both law and governance in China, in particular state over-responsiveness to individual grievances. The findings presented here suggest limitations to contemporary understanding of both the functioning of the Chinese state and of the role of law in China, and add to existing literature on the non-convergence of the Chinese system to existing models of legal and political development.