Another Guangdong Model: Labour NGOs and New State Corporatism

In late July this year, the international press reported that a new campaign of repression against labour NGOs was under way in Guangdong province – something which had already been reported months earlier not only by Chinese labour activists but also by the local media. According to the South China Morning Post, since February 2012 labour groups in the southern province have become targets of a wave of threats by the authorities and, in an action which a labour activist deemed ‘unprecedented’, at least seven labour NGOs have been shut down.

An employee of the Migrant Workers Centre (Dagongzhe Zhongxin 打工者中心) – a civil society organization based in Shenzhen – explained to a journalist from South China Morning Post that these recent actions represent a landmark change compared with past practices of coercion since, according to his experience, ‘in the past, most harassment and retaliation [against us] came from employers who were angry because of our work in upholding migrant workers’ rights. I have never seen such a large-scale clampdown from authorities in our centre’s history.’

Labour activist Huang Qingnan lies on the ground after being stabbed in November 2007

Wang Yang and the ‘Anti-Solidarity Machine’

And yet, such a wave of intimidations appears rather puzzling considering that such organizations are not really the blossoms of independent unionism that some people in the international labour movement would imagine them to be. With few exceptions, China’s labour NGOs simply promote the idea of law and rights developed by officialdom. They support individual disputes instead of more controversial collective cases, thus helping channel workers’ grievances into officially sanctioned avenues for redress.

As Ching Kwan Lee and Yuan Shen point out in a recent essay, the NGOs’ emphasis on individual rights involuntarily act as a kind of ‘anti-solidarity machine’, one which undermines unity among workers and prevents them from developing a genuine and robust labour movement. For these reasons, activities by labour NGOs end up being fairly consistent with the Chinese party-state’s paramount goal of ‘maintaining social stability’ (weiwen 维稳; for more details, see Chapter 3, China Story Yearbook 2012).

Particularly disconcerting is the fact that the present clampdown is happening exactly when Guangdong province—under the much-spruiked ‘enlightened’ guidance of its Party Secretary Wang Yang – is being touted by the Chinese authorities as a model for new policies on the management of social organizations. While at the end of 2009, Guangdong was only the fourth province with the largest number of social organizations (shehui tuanti 社会团体) in China, right behind Jiangsu, Shandong and Sichuan provinces, in the past couple of years its experimental reforms in the field of NGO registration have attracted a lot of attention from the media and the academic community. After an initial series of reforms carried out in Shenzhen, since 1 July 2012, a new provincial policy allows grassroots organizations to register with the local Civil Affairs Bureau without having to find an official agency willing to act as a sponsor. This measure has been hailed as an important step forward, since it seems to alleviate the pressure on those NGOs which, being active in sensitive realms, have up to now been relegated to a situation of juridical uncertainty due to the impossibility to obtain a definite legal status. So, how do we explain such repressive actions?

A Corporatist Revival

A number of new developments involving, among the other actors, the Guangdong Provincial Workers’ Union may help explaining the situation. While the Chinese media has recently placed a lot of emphasis on a campaign launched by the Shenzhen union to organize direct elections in union branches in 163 enterprises, an action which has been described by some Hong Kong based activists as an important chance for Western unions to build grassroots democracy in China, much less has been written about the events which, on 16 May this year, led to the establishment of a new organization under the aegis of the provincial union – the ‘Federation of Social Service Organizations for Guangdong Workers’ (Guangdongsheng zhigong fuwulei shehuizuzhi lianhehui 广东省职工服务类社会组织联合会).

This is an umbrella organization whose membership includes thirty-four associations (tuanti huiyuan 团体会员), mainly industrial associations, university legal ambulatories, foundations and local trade union agencies; fifty-five individual members (geren huiyuan 个人会员), mostly lawyers and union cadres; twenty organizations which have filed for membership but are still on probation (bei’an tuanti huiyuan 备案团体会员), a category which includes some very well-known grassroots labour NGOs.

The draft constitution of the newly established Federation – passed at a meeting involving more than one hundred representatives coming from union branches, associations and civil society organizations – underscores the fact that this new body is under the joint supervision of the provincial Union and Civil Affairs Bureau. Among its guiding principles it lists ‘the support to the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Government leadership, to uphold the People’s Republic of China’s Constitution and the various laws and state policies, to carry out activities according to the law’. It also emphasizes ‘the reinforcement of the overall planning and the coordination with the various key positions; to assist, unite, support and make contact with labour social service organizations, bodies and specialized individuals, in order to provide public interest activities and services aimed at the workers, to protect workers’ legal rights and interests, to stimulate harmonious labour relations and to push forward the realization of social justice and equity.’

Carrots and Sticks

Not only do serious doubts remain about the operational effectiveness of this new bureaucratic entity, but the ‘curious’ temporal concomitance between the establishment of the Federation and the ‘unprecedented’ wave of attacks on Guangdong NGOs raises some doubts about the political nature of such an initiative. Should the simultaneity between this wave of repression and the establishment of the Federation be seen as a mere coincidence? It is highly unlikely. Indeed, exactly when the restrictions to the registration of social organizations are eased, the local state appears to be rediscovering the usefulness mass organizations in bringing under its control those groups which operate in politically sensitive fields, labour in primis. And the Union is not an isolated case. Not by chance did the Guangdong Women Federation establish at the end of May its own Federation, another umbrella group, which has attracted as many as 3,628 social organizations working on gender and children issues.

Is the new Federation thus to be regarded as the sign of a corporatist revival in Guangdong and in China more broadly? As Jude Howell, a prominent specialist on Chinese civil society affiliated with the London School of Economics, pointed out in a paper presented at a recent conference held at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, the corporatist paradigm – as well as civil society theory — prove to be inadequate in explaining shifts in the relations between state and society in China. And yet, recent events in Guangdong indicate that, at least on paper, the state is trying to remould some sectors of civil society in a corporatist fashion, not resiling from the use of threats and force to achieve its aims. This ‘paper corporatism’ might very well be an aspect of the ‘social management innovation’ (shehui guanli chuangxin 社会管理创新) advocated by the Party leadership in recent years.

Echoes from V.I. Lenin

These recent developments remind us also of the Leninist concept that workers’ unions were to be regarded as a ‘transmission belt’. V.I. Lenin knew full well the importance of the union as a tool in moulding and guiding the opinions of the masses. In his famous tract What Is to Be Done? he declared that all Party members should be active in the unions and consciously seek to influence union members. In December 1920, he revisited this issue during a clash within the Communist Party of the newly established Soviet Union related to the role of the unions. He declared that the proletarian dictatorship ‘cannot work without a number of “transmission belts” running from the vanguard to the mass of the advanced class, and from the latter to the mass of the working people.’

Do we not detect the resonance of these comments from a time long gone in the latest moves in Guangdong to incorporate restive workers and their activist aspirations?


Ivan Franceschini is a PhD candidate at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He is the author of Cronache dalle fornaci cinesi (Chronicles of China’s Kilns) and—Post dalla Cina del nuovo millennio (—Posts from China in the New Millennium). In 2011, he co-directed the documentary film Dreamwork China