For those who have been watching the development of mediation and informal justice over the last three decades, China has provided an endless source of commentary on not only the apparent pervasiveness of mediation but also on the diverse forms of the process. While mediation in China (and Japan, Liberia and elsewhere) has provided early evidence of the use of extrajudicial, relatively informal processes of dispute resolution, and arguments for the now-familiar growth of such processes in the West, the apparently more interventionist, state-linked style of mediation has not been taken as the model of the mediation process to adopt.
The question is, however, just how pervasive was and is mediation in China. An interesting new article takes up this question in order to find empirical evidence of the middle ground in the debate: Benjamin L. Read and Ethan Michelson, “Mediating the Mediation Debate: Conflict Resolution and the Local State in China”, Journal of Conflict Resolution 2008; 52; 737 originally published online Jun 6, 2008
Their concern is that, on the one hand, there are those who have seen mediation as foundational, pervasive, omnipresent and preferred: Wall and M. Blum, 1991. Community mediation in the People’s Republic of China. Journal of Conflict Resolution 35:3-20 (and other articles by Wall and colleagues) fall into this category.
On the other hand, Diamant has taken issue with this view of mediation, arguing that is does not have the spread that Wall et al suggest and indeed is seriously eroded by modernisation and a preference for law and formal institutions. See Diamant, N. J. 2000. Conflict and conflict resolution in China: Beyond mediation-centered approaches. Journal of Conflict Resolution 44:523-46.
If the latter view is the correct one, then it has interesting implications for the comparative development of mediation in the West and East: if modernisation creates an impetus, in Asia,to move away from the community-based and informal processes of mediation, this contrasts with an apparent move in the other direction in the West, to the extent that there is a growing preference for mediation across the range of disputes and contexts.
Happily, this empirical research by Read and Michelson suggests that neither Wall nor Diamant have the picture quite right (as is so often the case, and as is appropriate in this setting, the Middle Way finds the right balance!). Mediation is neither the all-pervasive and intrusive process that Wall suggests; nor is it in terminal decline as Diamant suggests.
Without going into the article and argument in detail, what I do find interesting are these key points:
- rural dwellers are more likely than urban counterparts to use mediation (in part at least because of the range of options more readily available to the latter);
- the use of mediation may have become more attenuated – at least in urban settings – as the political and ideological role of the mediators has been reduced (but in rural settings, mediators are likely to be called on for a wider range of disputes);
- there is no significant demographic indicator as to the likely profile (age etc) of mediation users;
- but – here’s a key difference with Western mediation perhaps – the factor that most has to do with a disputant’s preference for mediation is the relationship with the mediator; that is, in particular, the degree to which the disputant(s) already had some involvement with the local committee, especially the Villagers’ Committee in rural areas;
- mediation is more closely tied to the state apparatus in China and many other parts of East Asia (including Singapore) than in the West – though given the rise of court-linked mediation programmes, this too is changing;
- ‘mediation’ is not readily defined in many East Asian contexts – here using the example of China – and is more likely to take the form of an appeal for intervention by the local officials and agencies (the ‘mediators’), who in turn are likely to use a variety of interventions, not all of which would be conventionally regarded as mediation in the West;
- the ‘success’ of mediation is likely to be overstated – probably because of the expectation placed on state officials to give positive accounts of their work (to what extent is this likely to be an issue as mediation becomes more institutionalised in the West?);
- women – especially rural women – are more likely to call on mediation (or at least intervention), and particularly in intra-family disputes: the lower social status and influence of women means that there is greater imperative to call on outside assistance;
- more highly educated families and individuals in rural areas are less likely to call on mediation, because of a preference not to have their affairs dealt with in this more public forum (ironic that mediation is seen as more public, whereas its proclaimed virtue in the West is its confidentiality);
- but those who are relatively wealthy, and have had more dealings with local authorities, are more likely to call on the officials, in the expectation of a more sympathetic hearing.
At the heart of this is one key difference (well, at least one I’d draw out): disputants are more likely to call on mediators and local officials if they already have a relationship with the mediators. As Read & Michelson conclude: “A person’s choice to make use of this institution depends in part on who she is and how close she feels to those who would be doing the mediating.” 
So – the design of mediation institutions in, say, Singapore, may need to take account of at least the possibility of this preference. All the more so as Read and Michelson do not share Diamant’s view that modernisation necessarily spells the end of mediation in Chinese society. This is all the more the case in settings – including Singapore – where mediation is likely to remain closely linked to the state apparatus – and going to mediation is not necessarily a preference for mediation but rather a preference for whatever it is that will resolve the dispute.