Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Gangster Nation—Not Only An On-Line Game

Starting from this year February, we heard that some Chinese labour NGOs were forced to close down or move to other places, especially in the south part of China. Until now, the labour NGOs seems to endure if not more at least not less pressure from the government. This article is to share my personal observation about this situation. 

My little cousin has been fascinated by this popular on-line game, ‘Gangster Nation’. I am not, unfortunately any good with on-line computer games, so I have never played it with him. However, this name came into my mind and I realised that it is not only suitable for an on-line game, but actually, it somehow reflects the reality of what has happened in China in relation to labour NGOs, especially in the Southern part of China. This article aims to reveal the recent struggles of the Chinese labour NGOs with gangsters in the nation.

The development of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in China has not been easy. The biggest difficulty for most NGOs is to register with the government. For a long time, the Chinese government double-qualification system to managing these organisations. This is to say that they cannot register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs directly; they have to find a suitable ‘business supervision unit’ within the government (业务主管单位”), and once they are associated with some sponsoring units, they are allowed to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Many NGOs cannot find a suitable bureau to allow them to be associated with; therefore they cannot register with the government. This double filter indeed impeded the development of NGOs in China. They therefore have to turn into underground organisations. They don’t have legal status but they still function, while the government turns a blind eye; most labour NGOs belong to this category. 

A good question to ask, then, is: why, if those NGOs cannot get legal status, do they still exist in this society? My answer to this question, which is derived from those founders of labour NGOs, would be: because the society needs them. Many founders of labour NGOs in China are workers themselves, who have experienced unjustified treatment when they were in the factories. As Mr. Huang<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> told me in August 2011, he was a worker in a factory but then he got injured at work, losing two of his fingers. The owner didn’t want to compensate him properly but fired him, so he went on studying the related regulations and then he sued the factory (successfully) for proper compensation. Based on his successful experience, Mr. Huang established a small centre to serve his fellow-workers. However he didn’t have enough funds to work unpaid for long and he couldn’t manage to attract foreign funds to support him because, ironically, he didn’t have a proper office to convince foreign foundations to invest in him, and the government was not happy with what he was doing.

Though Mr. Huang’s centre was unfortunately closed down, according to Kong Xianghong, Inspector of the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions, there are more than one thousand NGOs in Guangdong province.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]--> The main focus of labour NGOs is on helping workers with legal information and providing workers with cultural entertainment. Since most of them can’t register themselves with the government using their true identities, they have to use other titles for registering their organisations, or else they just don’t go for registration, and are on the government’s ‘black list’.  ‘Workers need us,’ Mr. Zhang,<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[3]<!--[endif]--> another founder of a labour organisation said. ‘We went to hospitals to visit injured workers and provide workers some places to go after their working time; for instance providing them with computers to get on-line or broadcasting some movies. We are not doing anything illegal.’

It seems that government has listened to the needs of society. Starting from 1 January 2012, Guangzhou municipal government has repealed one major administrative hurdle for eight types of social organisations (non-governmental organisations) to secure official registration for operation. Known as ‘de-regulation of social organisations’, this was extended to Guangdong province from 1 July this year. It means labour NGOs can directly register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs without looking for sponsorship by a ‘business supervision bureau’ 业务主管单位. Undoubtedly, this facilitated government supervision of NGOs, but most labour NGOs also wish to ‘come out from underground’. However, while society is relieved that the government has adopted a more open attitude towards NGOs, there are some signs that the government is failing to meet the expectations of society.

Starting in February 2012, some labour NGOs already felt the pressure from the government. Their landlords cut off electricity and water supplies to their rented offices; as a result, some labour NGOs became ‘homeless’.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[4]<!--[endif]--> The situation grew even more serious in July and August 2012, when at least seven organisations had been forced to shut down. This triggered a group of scholars (more than a hundred and forty) from the outside world to sign an open letter to Guangdong Municipal, to express their grave concern at the Guangdong government’s repression of grass-roots labour NGOs.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[5]<!--[endif]-->  The letter was sent around mid August 2012, but on August 30, another grass-roots labour NGO in Shenzhen (called Little grass), faced a severe crack-down.  On Wei-bo, the Chinese social media, an on-line video record<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[6]<!--[endif]--> showed that there was a group of people circulating in front of the office of Little grass. A member of staff at Little grass started to worry and called the police station; another one tried to hand out leaflets to this unfriendly group of people, to explain to them that the main purpose of their office is to help workers. The police didn’t come, but some minutes later this group of people revealed themselves to be gangsters and started to enter the Little grass office with violence, throwing out office papers and destroying facilities. Finally, they locked the door of Little grass’s office and left the staff outside their office. From beginning to end, the long-awaited police still didn’t arrive.

This short video might reflect the similar situations of many other labour NGOs when they face being closed down. The question is, who are the gangsters who crack down on those labour NGOs? Where were the police when those NGOs needed their protection? This is how I came to make the comparision with that famous computer game, Gangster Nation. In the computer game, at least there are good guys and bad guys, and usually the good guys defeat the bad guys in the end. However, in reality, somehow the distinction between good guys and bad guys is not that clear. Moreover, if the society lost trust in government, it would certainly increase the difficulty of governance. By then, it won’t be easy to suppress people’s anger by hiring some gangsters to ‘teach the malcontents some lessons’.
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<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> Interview data Shenzhen S1, interview date: August 18, 2011.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]--> ‘Interview of Kong Xianghong,’ Chinese Workers, 2010, issue 8.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[3]<!--[endif]--> Interview data Shenzhen S2, interview date: May 23, 2012.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[4]<!--[endif]--> Zhang Ziru, ‘Guangdong NGOs face grand-scale regulation: the government is using a two-handed policy, suppression and incorporation’ (in Chinese),, accessed September 3, 2012.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[5]<!--[endif]--> ‘Open Letter to Guangdong Government’,, accessed date September 3, 2012. 
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[6]<!--[endif]--> See for the video link; however, it might be taken off some time later. Accessed date, September 3 2012.

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