By Zhuojun

“Zhuojun, an undergraduate student, observes a recent contradictory phenomenon in Guangdong: NGOs are highly regarded and promoted by Provincial government but labour NGOs at grassroots level are treated badly. She asked the question: why is the local authority so nervous about labour NGOs? “

Mr. Wang Yang, a leading political figure in China and also the top leader of Guangdong Province, has showed effort and determination to enlarge space for civil society organizations in recent years. This has resulted in the rapid growth in registration of non-government organizations (NGOs) in Guangdong, reaching 30,535 in 2011. To understand the process, dynamics and consequences of Guangdong’s reform, I was lucky to have an internship opportunity and spent two months in an NGO in Shenzhen this summer for a workers’ education project. In particular, I was assigned to design and deliver a session to help rural migrant workers to familiarize themselves with relevant laws and regulations in order to protect their rights.

At the beginning, I thought that this was an amazing task and one that should be warmly welcomed by rural migrants. Two weeks later when we felt ready to give our training session, I found the reality was quite different from what I had thought, and there were a great many barriers and difficulties to hinder the implementation of our project.

First at all, not many migrant workers were interested in attending the training course despite it being free of charge. Furthermore, they were concerned with our motivation: some doubted whether we were a legal organization and others thought that we were driven by commercial backers.

The above results, however, were not caused mainly by our inexperience in communication with them. Soon we realized that public trust in China’s NGO sector has bottomed out due to the many scandals of recent years. An influential case was the story of “Guo Meimei Baby”, who showed off her sports car and lavish lifestyle, and even claimed that she was the general manager of the Red Cross Society of China. Despite it not being true, this story has caused an intensive debate on the transparency and management of public donations to the third sector in China.

Before this internship in China, I understood that it might not be easy for the development of NGOs at grassroots despite high profile support from the provincial government. What I was surprised by is that support of labour NGOs in Guangzhou was not included as a government objective. Rather, the space for labour NGOs at grassroots level according to my observations has been increasingly restricted. This can be seen from the case of Xiaoxiaocao Workers’ Home (XWH).

The XWH was founded in 2003 in Shenzhen, aiming at spreading legal knowledge among workers, protecting their interests as well as providing recreational and cultural activities for workers. Since this June, however, the XWH has found it difficult to survive due to many government inspections from different Departments.  This has been followed by the early termination of their rental contract by the landlord. They experienced the cutting off of the water and electricity supply from time to time, and one day about 60 unidentified thugs broke into the XWH office, removed their equipment, welded the locks of their doors and threw all their things outside. Faced by the violence, local police refused to intervene, claiming that this was a lease dispute.

As the XWH case is not unique but one of more than 10 labour NGOs in Shenzhen which has suffered from similar trouble this summer, I am concerned and confused by such a conflicting phenomenon in Guangdong: NGOs are highly regarded on the one hand and yet labour NGOs are treated so badly on the other. Why is the local authority so nervous about labour NGOs?

Zhuojun is an undergraduate student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. I am not an expert on this, but I will contribute to your debate by trying to answer your question in long form. In the UK industrial age, where large industry began to improve the skills of labourers, right through to the 21st century, trade unions have enabled/supported individual and collective action to massively challenge entrepreneurial or corporate authority. We are talking as far back as the 17th century and only really weakened by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, a massively charismatic and popular leader amongst her supporters for a good deal of time.

    Such movements were successful by Chinese in Hong Kong, too, even as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. With the current climate of protest and migrant labourers “waking up” in China, there exists a threat to authoritarianism if unions formed independent of the impotent Chinese unions, which could challenge corrupt officialdom. Disorganized, uncivilized protest gets in the way of a diversified Leninist dictatorship, and could disrupt the economy and societal stability. Civilized protest is a threat to corruption.

    At the level of local economy you discuss, and thank you very much for sharing your blog, would it be fair to say that local authority don’t want labour troubles on their hands, especially as they can obtain private benefits, eg from rent seeking types of behaviour, through connections with the firms that rely on migrant workers’ rights being unprotected?

    There is no benefit to the local cadres/landlords, who are economically self interested at the expense of the welfare of the labourers, to make the labourers more powerful by their knowledge of the law. As Party members, they are basically unsupervised depending on hierarchical guanxi not on impartial ethical code. Larger protests are against those who can and do extract personal benefits from government affiliation, so why would such beneficiaries become benefactors to NGOs that that seek to encourage civility and education of those who might support or organize mass unrest after being educated? Moreover, is the current leadership charismatic, deemed trustworthy or popular enough to be able to challenge groups or unions that are able to gain anti-government power? Education can lead to the coordination of power.

    If education like the NGO you mention, is eradicated at the roots, the masses remain enslaved to the authorities and cannot threaten their power. This eradication at the roots, as you describe the destruction of an NGO is normalized in a Leninist regime isn’t it? It’s interesting you have begun to question it. I hope it can spark a real debate.

  2. This is indeed an interesting piece, I’d like to share my observations as well.
    The development of NGO 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 applied 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.
    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’, 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, as you mentioned that many labour NGOs for instance XHW started to suffer from cutting of electricity, water, forced to moving out from their office… The first one I think is ‘Breeze’ in Longun, Shenzhen, from February this year they started to get threats from local council to close down their office. When you were in Shenzhen conducting your internship, that was the worst time for most labour NGOs, at least 7 labour NGOs were forced to shut down during this summer. More than 100 international labour scholars signed an open letter to the Guangdong government to plea for the labour NGOs’ situation. There are also 20 or so Chinese scholars wrote a similar open letter. Until early September this year, the situation was not good, I’m not quite sure how it is now. However, many of my interviewees informed me that the ‘two-hands’ policy from the government (encouraging labour NGOs to register with the government meanwhile shutting down some of them) is to ensure that those labour NGOs to be quiet before the 18th Party Congress. In other words, this is an extreme way to ‘maintain stability’. The local office’s anxiety about labour NGOs has some reasons, they don’t want to see any workers’ strikes ‘encouraged’ or ‘facilitated’ by labour NGOs, though most labour NGOs didn’t involve into workers’ strikes at all.

  3. Interesting article. Here is short overview of how I see it.

    Opening one eye and closing the other

    From the late 1980s on, the Chinese government embarked on a rather ambiguous reform regulating NGOs (as well as other civil society organisations). On the one hand, the party-state realized that a whole range of state responsibilities could be transferred to society (such as social services, economic development and disaster relief), and thus associations should be given more freedom and resources to develop. As organisations contribute to economic development and social stability, they also contribute to the legitimacy of the Party. So these ‘social forces’ (shehui liliang) were mobilised throughout campaigns in the post-reform era, such as the ‘mobilizing all societal forces for education’, ‘societalizing social welfare’ and ‘Community Construction’. On the other hand, the party-state fears the political risks of nurturing autonomous associations, as they are a potential sources that can mobilise and challenge the regime. In the aftermath of the Student and Workers’ demonstrations at Tiananmen in 1989, and lessons learned from inter alia the Polish Solidarity Movement, which developed out of a labour union, the double registration regime was imposed, which still governs NGOs today. This double registration makes it very hard for associations to legally register with the state, and ones registered it is hard for them to maintain independence in their day-to-day governance and operations. The registration regime has been tightened in light of the Falun Gong Movement in the late 1990s and the nearby ‘Colour Revolutions’ in the last decade. There has been no consistent policy towards NGOs and other civil society associations, and this contradictory (or ‘schizophrenic’) behaviour is not only stimulated by the central party and state organs, it is also enforced by local authorities. While local authorities have some space to experiment and to engage local NGOs in the economic and social development of the area, they are also more distrustful of the political and mobilising potential of these associations.

    This contradictory policies are then again different from issue area to issue area. NGOs that work in rather ‘harmless’ issue areas, such as rural development, gender issues and social welfare services, contribute to social stability and therefore, legitimacy of the party-state. Even though they might have the potential to mobilise on these issues, it will generally not touch upon issues of political reform. NGOs that work in more political sensitive issue areas, such as labour organisations, human rights NGOs and religious movements, are considered more ‘dangerous’, as they carry in them the potential to nurture unrest and dissatisfaction with the regime, as well as a potential to mobilise against the status quo.

    Even though Wang Yang has pursued a more liberal and permissive policy towards NGOs and social organisations in Guangdong Province, this has not been a consistent policy, with different measures of control for different kind of organisations in different issue areas. As workers organisations and labour unions are considered as possibly ‘dangerous’, and as they operate within political sensitive areas, local authorities will be on their guards and ready to intervene – by sending thugs, inviting leaders ‘to drink tea’, withdrawing licenses and so on- when ‘necessary’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *