avatar
Yueran Zhang senior contributor

In Southern China, Worker Solidarity NGOs Under Seige

In August and September, more than ten non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, have fallen into dire straits. In each case, landlords terminated their respective office leases and required them to leave within days, without providing specific reasons or prior notice. Despite the NGOs’ resistance and willingness to negotiate, the landlords, often citing government pressure, coerced the NGOs to move out, even using violence in some cases. The police refused to intervene, reasoning that “contract disputes” were not criminal cases.

What were these NGOs doing that caught the government’s eye? Founded by workers themselves and run independently, they aimed to build up worker solidarity, provide enrichment programs and protect workplace rights. Now they are severely debilitated, some even feeling they have no recourse but to shut down.

China’s government has consistently used its power against any attempts at self-organization in civil society. For this reason, the smashing of these latest NGOs does not surprise most netizens. Still, @只配抬杠 worries about how much social harm this latest move will inflict. “Those NGOs are just mutual-help organizations. The government, on one hand, represses them to isolate people from each other, and on the other, cannot handle the helpless individuals who [then] take revenge on society out of desperation. This is another evidence of the harm of the so-called ‘social stability first’ ideology.”{{1}}[[1]]这些NGO不过是一些社会互助组织,一方面打压民间互助浇漓人心,一方面是孤立无援的个人在绝望之下报复社会,层出不穷却又束手无策,这是政府以维稳思维殆害社会的又一例证。[[1]]

With its heavy dependence on labor-intensive industry, Guangdong Province is one of the largest hosts of migrant workers in China. Resident workers’ sense of alienation, as well as repeated conflicts with employers and with local residents are potential destabilizing factors in the region. Labor NGOs have functioned as mediators among workers, employers, local residents and the government and providers of social and psychological care. Without them, worker dissatisfaction and frustration could go unchecked and social tensions could be further inflamed, rendering mass disturbances by migrant workers in Guangdong more frequent.

Such mass incidents in Guangdong are already frequent enough. In June 2011, a worker protest to demand overdue wages in Chaozhou (潮州), Guangdong, grew into a violent riot that caused 18 severe injuries. Four days later, angered when urban enforcers beat a pregnant woman from Sichuan Province, more than one thousand migrant workers from Sichuan participated in a mass disturbance in Zengcheng (增城), Guangdong. In June 2012, a fight between a local resident and a migrant youth caused hundreds of migrant workers to besiege the government in Zhongshan (中山), Guangdong.

Worker dissatisfaction boiled over in Chaozhou in June 2011. Via Sina

What makes the labor solidarity NGOs even more necessary is the weakness of trade unions. Unions are independent collective bargaining organizations in many countries, but in China they function as a branch of the government. As @湖北whlh points out, “Most trade unions serve no purpose. They don’t represent the interest of workers but carry the order of employers or the government, and sometimes they are accessories to unreasonable stipulations. It’s a must to let workers found their own organizations, if our society wants to develop further.” {{2}}[[2]] [中国大多企事业单位的公会基本是个摆设,没有代表员工的根本利益而只是资方或管理者的一种命令渠道,甚至很多时候成为很多不合理决定的帮凶。员工在符合法律条文的前提下成立一些能够真正代表员工利益的民间组织是中国社会继续发展进步的当然选项。[[2]]

Recognizing the need to make a change, the Party Committee and the government of Guangdong Province passed a resolution in July 2011 to enhance society’s ability to self-govern. Since then, head officials of the Guangdong government have repeatedly said that burgeoning social organizations would be encouraged. Many citizens have hoped that the policy would change the deeply ingrained “big government, small society” ideology of Chinese government and generate nationwide political reform. After all, Shenzhen has been regarded as a seedbed for innovation and reform since the 1980s. Yet what happened in Shenzhen suggested that this policy might be nothing more than lip service.

On September 9, twenty scholars signed an open letter to the Party Committee and the government of Guangdong Province, urging them to stick to their promise. They argued that the only way to keep society stable was to “change the administrative model by lessening heavy reliance on governmental power and leaving more room to social organizations.” Xiao Shu, a political commentator who signed the letter, connected the recent Hong Kong protest against national education to the power of social self-organization. “People in Hong Kong set an example of ‘civil protest’,” he wrote, “whose precondition is enough preparation – the self-growth of civil society.”{{3}}[[3]]香港示范华人社会的公民抗争之路。八面来风,都汇集到一个方向!关键只在准备够不够,即公民社会的自我成长够不够![[3]]

As the now-displaced NGOs fight their way back, they have begun to turn to social media, which has acted as an equalizing force in China. Overmatched by governmental power and unrepresented on traditional media, NGOs use social media as a channel to voice resistance and gain support. The “Hand-in-hand” Labor Activities Camp (@手牵手工友活动室) and the “Little Grass” Labor Home (@深圳小小草工友家园) even tweeted real-time updates as landlords evicted them. Sympathy and encouragement from netizens have been a major source of their persistence. As Zeng Feiyang, executive head of a NGO called “Labor Server” in Fanyu (番禺), Guangdong, writes: “Thanks to scholars and all the people who support us! An open society needs social organizations serving the interest of workers. We are determined to stay rooted in the community and help workers!”{{4}}[[4]]感谢学者及社会各界的声援!开放的社会需要为劳工服务的社会组织。扎根社区,服务工人是我们劳工NGO坚定不移的选择![[4]]

2 Comments
Jump To Comments
avatar

Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.
  • Guess

    I always believe that there are reasons why certain people are rich and powerful and others are not, it is like saying why some of us are born healthy and good looking while others are not. The important thing to note is that these wealthy and powerful people has the choice to share their wealth with the less fortunate in a way that is more equitable in order for everyone to move forward to a peaceful and prosperous future. If way too many in the society are suffering in misery, you can rest assure that the rich won’t be able to enjoy their wealth in peace, this is just the law of nature.
    The problem is further complicated when the world economies are intimately woven together, such that the inequality felt in one country will cause reverberation in other countries. For example, it is said that the gap between the rich and the poor in western countries is growing bigger lately, the lower class American will pressure their government to undertake policies to increase their income. The government will discuss with large corporation and trade bodies for solutions. Most of the time the solutions will entail making other countries bear some of these burden. At the end, perhaps the Chinese manufacturers were asked to ‘contribute’ to the working class in the western countries. So you see it is so difficult to trace the roots of our problems these days and lasting solutions will inevitably involve every parties to compromise their positions.

  • Guess

    I always believe that there are reasons why certain people are rich and powerful and others are not, it is like saying why some of us are born healthy and good looking while others are not. The important thing to note is that these wealthy and powerful people has the choice to share their wealth with the less fortunate in a way that is more equitable in order for everyone to move forward to a peaceful and prosperous future. If way too many in the society are suffering in misery, you can rest assure that the rich won’t be able to enjoy their wealth in peace, this is just the law of nature.
    The problem is further complicated when the world economies are intimately woven together, such that the inequality felt in one country will cause reverberation in other countries. For example, it is said that the gap between the rich and the poor in western countries is growing bigger lately, the lower class American will pressure their government to undertake policies to increase their income. The government will discuss with large corporation and trade bodies for solutions. Most of the time the solutions will entail making other countries bear some of these burden. At the end, perhaps the Chinese manufacturers were asked to ‘contribute’ to the working class in the western countries. So you see it is so difficult to trace the roots of our problems these days and lasting solutions will inevitably involve every parties to compromise their positions.