Saturday, October 19, 2019

What Social Innovations Advisory is doing to build civil society resilience in China and beyond

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about my consulting company, Social Innovations Advisory, Ltd. I started SIA up in 2018, after leaving my position as Deputy Director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, to help NGOs carry out innovative and impactful programming and reporting in China, Asia and beyond.

Most of what I did in the first year was limited to China – monitoring and reporting on the legal environment for civil society and philanthropy, doing a mapping of active labor organizations in China, and helping with funding proposals for China-based projects.

During that year, I increasingly found myself venturing further afield, writing about how CSOs can expand civic space in Asia (mobilize local resources!), and going on a fact-finding mission to interview human rights CSOs in Israel and Palestine on challenges they were facing on access to funding.

In 2019, SIA’s core work continued to be on China:

·      Monitoring and updating ICNL’s China page for the Civic Freedom Monitor, and updating ICNL’s China Philanthropy Law Report and related info graphs, timelines and FAQs to explain the civil society and philanthropy environment and laws.

·      Updating the Council on Foundation’s Country Note for China.

·      Evaluating a China project, carrying out a China philanthropy seminar at HKU, helping an international NGO convene a meeting in Hong Kong to rethink their China strategy, and helping an international NGO with its temporary activity filings.

But increasingly our work is taking us further afield, focused on helping NGOs build resilience by diversifying their access to local resources and funding, and helping Chinese and international NGOs to address the challenges and risks posed by Chinese investment in the Belt and Road Initiative. Here’s a sample of some of our work:

·      A Financial Sustainability for Rights-based CSOs in the Global South project funded by Counterpart International and USAID, leading to the creation of 1) an online database of cases of CSOs that have moved from foreign funding to local resource mobilization; 2) a report analysing the cases; and 3) a toolkit to train CSOs on mobilizing local resources. More on this later.

·      Helping international CSOs seeking to localize in China to identify funding sources and come up with an outreach strategy to support programming in China and overseas.

·      A UNDP China project examining the social risks to sustainable development posed by Chinese investment in BRI countries. For this project, SIA put together a research team of four researchers from an international CSO and a Chinese CSO to carry out fact-finding missions to Nepal and Zambia, and draft a Discussion Paper which will be published by the UNDP at the end of 2019. There are plans for follow up projects to manage some of these risks.

·      Participating in a Chinese civil society delegation to the 2019 General Assembly of the African Coalition of Corporate Accountability (ACCA), whose theme is the impact of Chinese investment, to share our China experience and knowledge with our African counterparts.

In these projects, one can discern pathways by which CSOs can flourish in this changed environment in China. One is experimenting with new models for mobilizing resources inside China. A second is going abroad, following Chinese companies and individuals, and learning how to operate internationally and engage with international civil society.

While both are challenging and have their pitfalls, CSOs may have little choice but to move ahead because of the tantalizing opportunities they offer.

Friday, September 27, 2019

On the 70th anniversary of the PRC, how can we rebuild China's civil society?

As the People's Republic of China approaches the 70th anniversary of its founding, we need to reflect on an important question and that is how to rebuild China's civil society. China's civil society has made significant progress over the last 40 years, but in the last 5-6 years, it has suffered a great deal and even gone backwards. China desperately needs to recover and rejuvenate the civil society that had been emerging in the early 2010s. More than ever before, China needs a capable, engaged and independent civil society and we need to be thinking now about how to achieve that. As I have said elsewhere,

"In the long run, there really is no good alternative to a robust, vibrant civil society if China wants to develop into a prosperous and stable modern power. Chinese civil society’s responsibility is thus a heavy one and its supporters should recognize this moment as a critical opportunity to rethink how civil society can adapt and move forward."

In that essay, I likened China's civil society to a forest that has experienced a major fire and needs to be regenerated. What then needs to be done to rebuild China's civil society so that it can play a constructive role in guiding China to a better future? Here are some ideas I've been thinking about, not necessarily in order of importance. 

- Strengthening Chinese civil society's understanding of international values, and the capacity and opportunities to engage in exchanges with international civil society

- Strengthening the capacity of Chinese civil society to carry out actions to realize those values

- Strengthening the legitimacy of Chinese civil society among the public, private sector and government.

- Beginning a process of detaching the party and state from civil society, and shaping government policy to create an enabling, rather than controlling, environment for CSOs working in China.

More on these ideas later.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

In Remembrance of Forgetting

June 4, 2019  Guangzhou, China

Last year my wife and I celebrated our 30th anniversary together. We were married in Wilmington, Delaware on July 2, 1988. I wonder if being able to celebrate and remember the day of our wedding made any difference to our marriage and to our lives. What if we were not allowed to celebrate our anniversary, talk about it with our family and friends, share pictures of us celebrating our wedding or anniversary on social media? Would it make any difference to us or our families or friends?

It's hard to answer this question because like most counterfactuals, the scenario I'm putting forth has never happened. Of course we are able to share our memories with others and we take it for granted so we never really stop and think about why it matters. Here I have to confess that I've never been one to appreciate the institution and trappings of marriage. As a 28 year old still searching for his bearings - and this is no reflection on my wonderful wife - I approached the wedding like I approached getting my vaccinations at the doctor's. It was more an utilitarian exercise I needed to do so I could move on with my life.

As I've grown older, I've changed my view of that event.  I've come to appreciate that sharing memories of our marriage contributes to a larger collective memory and history that gives our relationship and our life more meaning because it is shared and remembered by others outside our immediate relationship. Sharing memories of that event matters because it became an essential part of building the family and community that we started when my wife and I chose to marry.

Not being able to share the event with others would create a discontinuity in that collective memory and history. We would still be able to talk about other things with our family and friends. But something would be missing: the founding event that led to our wonderful family and community of friends. Being denied the ability to share that event, we would not be able to live a normal life, to build a normal community of family and friends.

A few months after our wedding, I started my Ph.D. in political science at Columbia University in the city of New York. I had decided to specialize in the study of Chinese politics after spending a year teaching English in China and coming away knowing I wanted to study this great enigma of a country.

The next year, in the spring semester, I remember walking through hallway of the School for International and Public Affairs, and seeing a mass of people packed into the auditorium on the ground floor listening to someone speak. I was told the speaker was a certain Liu Xiaobo, a visiting scholar at Columbia at the time, who was speaking about something big taking place in China. Shortly afterwards, he flew back to Beijing to join in something he knew he had to be a part of.

After two years of fieldwork in Taipei and Xiamen, and two more years of writing my disseration, I received my doctorate in 1996 and went on to teach political science at a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York. My wife and I raised two children in the town of Hyde Park. Ten years later she joined the foreign commercial service and was posted to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, bringing her family along.

I spent most of my time in Beijing working for China Development Brief, a Chinese NGO reporting on the ever so gradual development of China's civil society. We were motivated by the idea that China needed to build a strong societal foundation if any change in its superstructure was to be sustainable. My colleagues and I looked nervously to the future, rarely talking or thinking about the past, and dreaming of better things. One early June day, I asked a taxi driver if he knew what anniversary it was. He was stumped until I told him. And then he suddenly remembered what all of his compatriots had forgotten.

We had been living in Beijing for around three years when, in 2010, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unable to accept the prize, having been imprisoned for taking part in the writing of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for China to move in a more liberal, democratic direction. Liu ended up dying in prison on July 13, 2017 of liver cancer. Almost no one in China knew who he was. Many of his compatriots hadn't forgotten, they just didn't know he existed. Which is worse?

I ask that question about my anniversary. I think I would rather my anniversary be forgotten than for people not to know about it. I understand people are busy and have better things to remember than my anniversary. But I would want my friends and family to at least know my wife and I were married, that we had a wedding sometime in the distant past. That sharing of memories constitutes an important part of what separates our community of family and friends from our acquaintances.

On this day, I understand that the Chinese are busy too, and that they have better things to think about than the past, such as the future for their families and their nation. I hope for their sake that they are not ignorant, that they have instead simply forgotten. Because then, like my friend the taxi driver, all it will take is a reminder for the light to go on and the memories to return.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The rising role of “hub-style” organizations as stewards of the party (pt. 2)

The following post is Part 2 of a guest blog by Ryan Etzcorn a Fulbright Research Fellow (2018-2019) and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies (MPP & MA).


Leaning on hub-style organizations to bridge the gaps: the theme of cross-sector coordination

If the attitudes and goals regarding hub-style organizations are sorted into themes, cross-sector coordination is the first.   Hub-style organizations have become a dominant force in the region’s discussion on future public welfare provision, and they bring with them a determination to scramble the boundaries between enterprise, government, and nonprofit activity in hopes for better integration and efficiency. In some ways, the core ideas behind this drive for intersectoral coordination resemble the “collective impact” wave in the U.S. in the early 2010’s, when leaders across sectors experimented with long-term, coordinated social solutions to some of their communities’ most intractable problems.But collective impact in the U.S. has since come under fire for (among other things) too often failing to provide a central “backbone” authority able to bridge differences among institutional partners. 

Social service leaders in Guangzhou and Shenzhen wonder less about who will coordinate a new and multisectoral harmonious society -- that’s clearly the Party's job. Despite the major differences between these cities, all agreed that “hub-style organizations” at the intermediary level are becoming the indispensable “bridge and belt” of a new era in Party-led cross-sector social welfare provision.

“Building capacity” for the nonprofit sector

The second dominant theme emerging in my interviews is a fixation on the role of hubs in “building capacity” for social organizations. This term has also long been a fixture in western debate and seems to take on new meaning in the Chinese context. Several SO leaders I talked to expressed suspicions that “building capacity” was a red herring for preparing SO to take on top-down government purchasing projects, but others working with hubs also occasionally emphasized the necessity of promoting resource diversification among social organizations.

Each interview with the leaders or staff in hub-style organizations expressed a desire to build genuine links between community members and institutions and to build a healthy social sector. During several of these same interviews, my counterparts even expressed an expectation that their hub would be granted more autonomy in their daily affairs once the MoCA and other government ministries had determined that fledgling hubs could graduate from a “development phase”, though it was unclear when that day might come. On the other hand, hub-style organizations in Shenzhen and Guangzhou invariably envisioned a future where social organizations were either contracting from the government or providing social services to supplement state goals.

Exchanging capacity for loyalty at China’s new hubs

To many in both these cities, there is no smooth bullet train to a future with secure resources, but a clear emphasis on government contracting persists among social organizations, hub-style organizations, and government officials. For many social organizations  in Guangzhou, the struggle for revenue diversity may look especially bleak. MoCA in Guangzhou has so far constructed a much more centralized and “systematic” approach to building social organization capacity through hub organizations, with selective support flowing down each administrative level starting from the municipal MoCA. In response to a MoCA directive to set up ten social organizations in every community (shequ) by the end of the year, one social organization leader said he saw this as hopeless due to the immense difficulty of finding enough competent and experienced professionals to staff new organizations in an industry notorious for weak remuneration.

In the view of the government-led hub-style organizations, the cure for civil society’s stunted growth lies less with easier registration requirements, open fundraising channels, or clearer tax incentives for charitable donations, and more with a constant drumbeat for professionalization. When it comes to administrative capacity, they may have a point. social organization leaders I spoke with complained of an explosion in paperwork over the last two years, especially if an organization was so foolish as to seek status as a “charitable organization.” Unfortunately, efficiency gains for government ministries captured by outsourcing administrative functions to hubs may be accelerating the administrative burden for grassroots groups as these intermediary organizations grow into a “second government.”  

In many ways, intermediary organizations play a vital role in civil societies across the world, but as my interviews have so far suggested, active discrimination by hub-style organizations plays a growing role in determining which versions of civil society are connected to critical revenue lifelines. In Guangdong’s resource-strapped social sector, hubs  offer a rare lifeline to “incubate” Party-friendly social organizations and “hatch” them out into society for greater roles in social welfare provision, but as the incubation kitchens reach capacity, they also double as a means for local governments to exclusively “kai xiao zao” (to open a special oven or  grant preferential treatment) in the name of stability maintenance. It remains to be seen how well these southern hatchlings will earn public trust, provide effective services, and bear witness to society’s structural challenges. 

This blog is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this blogpost are entirely Ryan’s and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The rising role of “hub-style” organizations as stewards of the party (Pt. 1)

This post is part 1 of a guest blog by Ryan Etzcorn, a Fulbright Research Fellow (2018-2019) and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies (MPP & MA). 


By the end of 2018, I grew pretty comfortable with the bullet train commute between Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The past 40 years of Reform and Opening Up have transformed this corridor into one of the most important economic regions in the world. Throughout the Pearl River Delta, regional leaders take every opportunity to parade their proud tradition of leadership in manufacturing, technology, and record-breaking infrastructure. In this corner of China, the obsession with “breakthrough innovation” has advanced to feel like a regional pastime. But to some of the region’s Party-state leaders and private “social entrepreneurs”, breaking down barriers of time and space for more GDP is not enough. Instead, these leaders have re-dedicated themselves to a paradigm shift which seeks to erode sectoral barriers between government, business, and charity for the provision of “public benefit” (gongyi). 

In both Shenzhen and Guangzhou, social workers, business leaders, leading government officials, and academics are collaborating in WeChat groups, conferences, and salon discussions and using the same slogans to emphasize a more coordinated era of “public governance.” It is time, they say, to heed Xi Jinping’s call for “collective community building, collective governance, and collective sharing” and use it to replace the tired government/business/nonprofit sectoral boundaries of bygone eras and foreign origins. Under the leadership of the Party, “participatory” community governance will finally be realized, starting with Guangdong.

As both a researcher and practitioner, I arrived in August of 2018 on a research fellowship to explore how new developments in Chinese policy and law were propelling changes in the fabric of its civil society. Before that, in the years leading up to the paired release of the Charity Law and Overseas NGO Law in 2016, I spent two years of a graduate program at the University of Michigan examining Chinese civil society from several angles, including archival work and interviews with grassroots organizations across China. The passing of those two highly anticipated laws came and went and I chose Guangzhou and Shenzhen to study their implementation.

For me, the rationale for wanting to study new “public benefit” (gongyi) developments in Guangzhou and Shenzhen felt obvious. Both are situated under the same national and provincial laws and regulations. Other Guangdong cities have been notable for standout social policy experimentation, but the province's top rank in philanthropic giving has much to do with its two mega cities. Guangdong also boasts special funds for social organization capacity building and trails only Jiangsu Province in the sheer number of social organizations that have been registered to date.  

Both Shenzhen and Guangzhou have more in common with each other than either does with most other Chinese cities, and yet some contrasts in public welfare delivery regimes remain profound. The much older city of Guangzhou is known in the region for more than 450 state-engineered “family integrated social service stations” providing wrap-around services that are administered by China’s largest legion of social workers. In comparison to Shenzhen, Guangzhou is importantly recognized for the more exclusive role that government plays in resourcing and fostering social organizations.  

The younger, sleeker Shenzhen is known as a hotbed for major technology firms and real estate investment. Huge tech companies and Hong Kong cross-border flows provide more diverse options for social organization funding, even while the Ministry of Finance has pushed special pilot efforts to rationalize and strengthen government procurement of social services. Shenzhen also sprang into action early with one of the first local governments in China to capitalize a series of community foundations. Along with Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu, Shenzhen’s government has subsidized social impact investment pilot projects, subsidized fixed costs for social enterprises, and even issued social impact bonds.  Although clear differences persist, the backdrop they provide makes commonalities in policy design even more notable and potentially telling for broader trends in the PRC.

Shaping a sector: introducing “hub-style organizations”

Amidst the blur of WeChat zines and conference forums I attended since Fall 2018, an obvious pattern of institutional leadership emerged across both cities. Surprisingly, it wasn’t quite the government itself nor the grassroots groups holding the microphone or building most of the WeChat groups. Instead, it looked like I was witnessing a takeover by the organizations “in between”. In China’s current social sector, to be a “hub-style organization” (shuniu xing zuzhi) has become a term of pride that resembles a notion of being higher up in a sort of institutional “value chain”.

In the past month, I spoke with leaders at state-backed “social organization institutes”, city-wide social organization  associations, the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MoCA), grassroots groups, and leading “mission-oriented” consulting groups in both Shenzhen and Guangzhou. My first rounds of interviewing distinguished two major types that were viewed as key for building financial capacity and sustainability among grassroots groups: quasi-governmental associations and incubator bases. Both of these hub categories are managed on some level by government institutions or other quasi-state institutions, such as the All-China Federation for Women or the Communist Youth League.

Social organization associations, social organization “institutes“, and charity federations collectively make up the first category that are mostly registered as civil non-enterprise units, though they actually function as directly-reporting auxiliaries of specific bureaus or departments within the MoCA.[1] Though they mostly exist at the city level, district versions also exist in both Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Each of the three types in this category also served as a “platform” by convening social organizations, producing research and propaganda for social organization consumption, disseminating data on the sector, or providing free training services. Social organization associations in particular are being increasingly tasked with serving as a depository for annual reports required of all registered organizations, where the data is pooled and later conveyed to the MoCA.

Incubators make up the second category and are established by local government initiatives at the city, district, and sub-district levels in both Shenzhen and Guangzhou. They also represent a more collaborative approach combining state subsidies, operating contracts with civil non-enterprise units, in-kind donations from local businesses, and training services from professional consulting firms like NPI. Without fail, every incubator felt obliged to stress that participation in an incubator space does not merely provide office space, but also includes opportunities for training and “resource docking” opportunities (fundraising training, grant-writing, or help with government procurement applications).

For many organizations, these hub organizations are key forums both for demonstrating loyalty to the Party and gaining access to critical resources. Both categories of hub-style organization are charged with promoting “Party-building” among their member institutions, and those grassroots organizations that are amenable to creating Party committees and networking those committees are systematically favored by evaluation criteria and access to hub-provided resources. Service-oriented (non-advocacy) organizations with missions that match local government goals are also favored by incubators that provide subsidized resources. Even social organization interviewees that expressed wariness toward government cooptation earnestly wished they could get a coveted spot in an incubator, if only for the substantial benefits, like free rent or help with registration. The problem now is that most incubators have been at capacity for two years or more in these two cities, with long waiting lists for entry.

In part 2 of this blogpost, Ryan will discuss how “hub-style” organizations are being utilized by the Party-state, covering two main themes: cross-sector coordination and “building capacity.”

This blog is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this blogpost are entirely Ryan’s and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

[1] Social Organization Associations and Social Organization Institutes operate under the the Social Organization Management Bureau at the municipal-level MoCA for each city, though the social organization Institute in Shenzhen was initiated by a combination of the social organization Association and Charity Federation, which are directly supervised by MoCA. According to interviews and official info, the Guangzhou Charity Federation is directly supervised by the Emergency Relief & Charity Affairs Office at the municipal-level MoCA. In Shenzhen, the Charity Federation is directly supervised by the municipal MoCA, but not by any particular office of the municipal MoCA, like in Guangzhou.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The year 2018: China’s civil society past, present and future

At first glance, the new Terminal 2 at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport comes across as a elegant technological marvel. It has a polished, ultra-modern feel with high ceilings, open spaces, sparkling storefronts and the latest in high-tech digital hardware. But as you walk through it, you realize there isn’t much life inside. The floors are a cold, gleaming granite and the commercial space is filled with stores selling luxury brands, a few restaurants and coffee shops, and one convenience store. 

The lower your income bracket, the fewer places you have to hang out, which is a problem if you’re seeking to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for travelers. There is none of the vibrant energy you find in other airports in other parts of Asia or Europe or the U.S., with hip restaurants, bars and stores catering to travelers of more modest means.

Terminal 2, like many other of the new structures being built in China, could serve as a metaphor for the kind of civil society China is building, one that is carefully constructed from the top down and looks beautiful on the outside but lacks the energy and life that comes from the engagement of individuals and groups having ideas to express and problems to address. Both Terminal 2 and China’s present civil society are like someone’s utilitarian fantasy or nightmare. Why would someone construct structures like this, a society like this? I would suggest the impetus has more to do with conveying strength and imposing order and control and less with expressing or satisfying human needs and desires.

This civil society present represents a significant departure from civil society past which is the civil society that was emerging prior to the new era ushered in by the supreme architect-in-chief, President Xi Jinping. While control and repression by the state was a part of life before Xi, grassroots groups of different shapes and sizes found soil to take root in and grow, like weeds in a well-tended lawn. It was a stunted civil society but nevertheless one with a human core. More importantly, it was a civil society building the necessary foundation to begin a dialogue with the state on the country’s future. There were environmentalists taking on air pollution and monitoring Chinese investment overseas, public interest lawyers representing workers stricken with pneumoconiosis and Falun Gong practitioners, performance art by feminists and anti-discrimination activists fighting against sexual harassment and discriminatory hiring practices, labor activists training workers on labor law and collective bargaining, and NGOs calling for equal access to education for migrant children.

Under President Xi, civil society has undergone a makeover and the product as it appears in the year 2018 is as impressive as it is disheartening. Terminal 2 comes to mind when surveying civil society present and the civil society that might come to pass – civil society future. The building blocks for this makeover are now familiar to many and have been documented in this blog over the last few years:

n  the passage of more restrictive laws and regulations governing foreign NGOs, charity, social organizations, religion, volunteers;

n  the provision of state funds to outsource services by social organizations and the creation of government-supported incubators and development centers to guide “social construction”;

n  the closing down of independent civic groups engaged in activism and advocacy and house churches, and the arrest of human rights lawyers, feminists, labor activists, environmentalists, and ministers over the last four years;

n  the requirement for all social forces to submit to the orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism and the leadership of the Communist Party

I witnessed these changes in my many conversations with activists and NGOs in China in 2018. Some activists had headed underground for cover. Others were seeking to remake themselves by registering as social organizations working on community and charitable issues like providing services to migrant families or helping the elderly and disabled. Many NGOs, unable to get support from overseas donors due to restrictions imposed by the Overseas NGO Law, had difficulty finding funding. To my surprise, many were now relying heavily on funding from the government. Other more pragmatic types were looking to start new business models like social enterprises. Still others continued to hold out either because they chose not to go after government funding or because they were on a blacklist and were unable to register as a social organization, which was a prerequisite for applying for government funding. A common refrain I heard from my NGO friends was, “At least we’re alive. We see that as a victory.” 

Their persistence is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year. In one of the biggest crackdowns on labor groups, police and security forces rounded up workers, students and labor activists involved in the Jasic Technology factory protests in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen. Many of the students were self-identified Marxists from top universities like Beijing University and Renmin University. There were also a few elderly Maoists who joined the mix.

The Jasic case epitomizes the moral bankruptcy of the Xi regime which seeks to impress, control and terrorize yet has no ideological or moral core of its own. The striking irony of Xi’s “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics” should not be lost on anyone. A regime that is building the most formidable Marxist edifice of the 21st century rejects the Marxist appeal of students and Maoists to support workers in their struggle against capital.

I’d like to end my last post of 2018 on a bright note with a reminder that next year marks the 100th and 30th anniversaries of two important historical mileposts in the development of China’s contemporary civil society: the May 4th Movement of 1919 and the June 4th Movement of 1989 respectively. Civil society future has a long way to go to recapture the moral core of these movements, but let’s hope it can take baby steps in that direction in 2019.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Chinese state’s repression of Jasic workers and their supporters, and the international response

Today is International Human Rights Defenders Day, and tomorrow December 10 is International Human Rights Day, so it’s only appropriate that we use this opportunity to remember the Jasic workers and their supporters and explore ways to work for their release.

I was in the process of preparing a list of the 32 individuals associated with the Jasic case who have been in custody, detained and/or disappeared but then two days ago, Human Rights in China provided a valuable public service by issuing an urgent appeal on behalf of the Jasic workers and their supporters, along with a better, more up-to-date list.

The Jasic case will be remembered as an important event in the annals of Chinese labor history, less for what Jasic workers achieved on the factory floor and more for their success in mobilizing wider social attention to the workers movement and for the ferocious repression by Chinese authorities and police.

How the Jasic case got this big

The details of the Jasic Technology case are by now well known. Over the past two years, the factory had asked workers to step up production and changed the scheduling system to redefine leave and thereby reduce workers’ overtime pay. They also imposed a new disciplinary system to ensure workers fell in line. As early as July 2017, a handful of Jasic workers went to the local Labor Bureau to submit a complaint about management practices. Jasic management made some superficial changes but not enough to address the workers’ concerns.

In May and June of 2018, these Jasic worker activists took a different approach to improving labor relations in the factory. They found that Jasic did not have a enterprise union as required by law, and approached the local Pingshan district union to ask about setting up an union and holding democratic elections for union positions. Jasic management took steps in June to set up a union and hold elections but then manipulated the elections for union posts by assigning their preferred candidates to run. While the Pingshan union originally supported the worker activists, they did nothing when Jasic management hijacked the election process. In the end, none of the worker activists who had proposed setting up a union were elected. In July, these activists continued to solicit the support of other workers about the need for a democratically-elected enterprise union. Jasic management responded by firing six of the activists in mid-July.

The Crackdown

At this point, things got out of hand as the worker activists began to share information on social media about their problems at Jasic and failed efforts to establish a democratically-elected union.  Supporters from diverse groups – university students, former Jasic employees who had been fired or pressured to leave, workers from other factories, Maoists – began to show up at the factory gates calling for reinstatement of the fired worker activists.

The hardline police response that followed escalated the conflict. On July 20, the police seized 20 of the protestors and held them at the police station overnight. The protestors were released the next day and went back to the factory to continue the protests along with other supporters. On July 27, the police formally detained 29 of the protestors. This news brought attracted more supporters from different cities to support the workers and those who had been detained. On August 24, police seized about 50 more supporters, detaining some or placing them under residential surveillance, and interrogating others. Most of these people were later released.

On September 3, we heard news of the first formal criminal charges filed against those on this list. Four of the Jasic worker activists were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” which carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. On September 8, Fu Changguo, a staff member at the labor NGO, Dagongzhe Center, was formally arrested under the same charge. No other criminal charges have been filed against any of the others.

From this chronology of events, we can see that if Jasic management had made a good faith effort back in June to set up a democratically-elected union and started negotiations with workers to address their concerns, this case would not have escalated to this level.

Jasic as a labor rights and human rights case

Jasic now stands as the biggest case of police repression against workers and their supporters since the central government’s crackdown on labor groups in Guangzhou on December 3, 2015. The Jasic case is already turning out to be larger in scope than the 2015 crackdown which resulted in the formal detention and trial of three labor NGO staff for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.”  The police have already formally arrested four Jasic workers and one labor NGO staff on the same criminal charge, and seized at least 27 others, mostly university students and NGO staff.  Some of these have been disappeared, others have been detained and still others placed in residential surveillance. News about the workers and their supporters is being continually updated online by the Jasic Workers Support Group.

The police have also taken a harder line against suspects in this case than in the 2015 crackdown. This may be in part because of the participation of university graduates from top universities in Beijing and Nanjing, which raises the specter of a worker-student coalition, but also because police seem to be taking a harsher line against collective protests. Multiple violations of procedural safeguards for suspects and detainees have been reported by the friends and family of the detained, many of whom have not been able to see a lawyer. Lawyers need authorization from family members to take on a case, and according to the reports of HRIC and other informants, police are putting pressure on family members not to give authorization and on lawyers not to take on Jasic cases. 

Like the 2015 case, Jasic has become both a labor rights case and a broader human rights case, highlighting violations of the right of workers to freely organize and form a union, as well as citizens’ rights to freedom of assembly and due process under the law.

How the international community can help

The international community has an important role to play in mitigating the effect of the repression against Jasic workers and their supporters. Fortunately, many organizations and individuals have already begun to raise their voices in protest. Foreign media have covered the repression as it has grown in scope, notifying the international community of new developments. International human rights groups have publicized urgent appeals to foreign governments and the broader international community calling for the release of the workers and their supporters. Foreign scholars have called their universities to stop exchanges with Chinese universities and academic conferences.

More can still be done. International human rights and labor unions organizations can bring the Jasic case up at the UN and ILO which have mechanisms and special procedures for reporting violations of international labor and human rights principles. Foreign diplomats can make their governments aware of the human rights violations in this case and raise them at meetings with their Chinese government counterparts. At a more personal level, foreign diplomats can, whenever possible, visit affected family members to show support and send a message to the Chinese police that the family members will not be intimidated.

Foreigners naturally wonder whether their actions would be helpful or backfire and make things worse for the people they are trying to help. Many Chinese activists are now making it clear that intervention on the part of the international community is helpful. They note that the Chinese government is sensitive about its international image and cite a number of cases where international attention has ameliorated the treatment of Chinese activists, their families and lawyers.