Morality vs. Legitimacy: Why do the Chinese Obey the Law

TitleMorality vs. Legitimacy: Why do the Chinese Obey the Law
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsJingkang Gao, Jinhua Zhao
JournalLaw and Human Behavior

This study explored two aspects of the rule of law in China: (1) motivations for compliance with 4 groups of everyday laws and regulations and (2) determinants of the legitimacy of legal authorities. We applied a structural equations model, constructed from Tyler’s conceptual process-based self-regulation model with morality added as a motivation, to online questionnaire responses from 1,000 Shanghai drivers. We explored the compliance with four particular groups of laws: public disturbance; conventional traffic laws; illegal downloading; and distracted driving. The results were threefold. First, for all four groups of laws, the perceived morality influenced compliance consistently and more strongly than the perceived legitimacy of the authorities and all other motivations. The influence of perceived legitimacy of authorities was inconsistent across the four groups of laws tested. Second, the influence of perceived severity of punishment was consistent and significant across all four groups of laws, whereas the perceived risk of apprehension had no significant impact on compliance. Third, evaluations of procedural fairness, not those concerning the equitable distribution of law enforcement services and effectiveness of law enforcement, were most strongly linked to legitimacy. In addition to showing that China is a law-abiding society governed by morality, these results underscore the importance of examining morality and magnitude of punishment as potential motivations for compliance in addition to legitimacy and certainty of punishment. They also illustrate the necessity to examine different groups of laws separately when studying compliance. Finally, these results challenge the linkage between legitimacy and compliance previously established in the literature.

Public Significance This study of Shanghai residents underscores the importance of normative motivations in compliance with the law. Perceived morality is found to influence compliance consistently and more strongly than all other motivations. In addition, the study identifies procedural fairness as the primary antecedent of legitimacy. These findings show that focusing on moral inculcation and enforcing the law fairly are more important than expending more public resources on enforcement in obtaining compliance with the law and maintaining social order. 


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Advanced Mobility Management, Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART)

Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), 2016-2020

As part of the Future Urban Mobility (FM) IRG of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), the team led by Prof. Zhao combine behavioral science and transportation technology to envision a future urban mobility system for Singapore that integrates public transit, walking and bicycling, shared mobility and autonomous vehicles.  Read More