Wednesday, April 21, 2021

China's neutered civil society will make it hard for it to deliver on the SDGs

 I recently wrote this blogpost for Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC) and am reposting it here.

China’s White Paper and the BRI: Can we expect China to deliver on the SDGs? 

 While China’s new White Paper for International Development Cooperation opens opportunities for it to make substantial contributions to the SDGs through south-south cooperation and China-backed initiatives such as BRI, I argue the top-down development approach of China and the lack of an active civil society might hinder the delivery of its commitment to sustainable and inclusive growth in the global South. 

 The English-language blogpost can be found on BRHHC's website, 

 The Chinese version of the blogpost can be found here (中文版本的链接)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Pathways to Financial Sustainability for NGOs

Social Innovations Advisory (SIA) is pleased to announce the release of its report, Building the Roadmap for Financial Sustainability for Rights-based CSOs in the Global South. The report analyses case studies of CSOs in the Asia-Pacific region that are piloting a wide range of business and funding models. These cases are based on interviews conducted during the spring of 2019 with 22 CSO leaders about their experiences, achievements and challenges. Summaries of 16 of these cases in standardized templates are now available in the CSO Sustainability Database on the website of Innovation for Change (I4C). The report can also be found on the website of Rights CoLab, of which SIA's director, Shawn Shieh, is a Contributor.


The findings of this research project have also been shared in the following platforms:


·      A podcast in the Civic Innovator’s series featuring SIA’s founder, Shawn Shieh, Innpactia’s coordinator, Ana María Espin and Innpactia’s founder, Juan Carlos Lozano on “Creative Sustainability” focusing on the imaginative and inventive ways that civil society organizations are seeking resources, funding and other support for their work in often difficult circumstances.


·      Shawn Shieh’s OpenGlobalRights article on how Chinese CSOs are at the forefront of exploring hybrid business and funding models thanks to China having perhaps the most diverse funding ecosystem in Asia.


·      SIA’s report and cases join a growing body of work carried out by the Innovation for Change network and Rights CoLab on financial sustainability and alternative CSO business and funding models in other regions of the world. SIA’s report can be found on the website of Rights CoLab, and the cases can be found on Rights CoLab’s Mapping Civil Society Innovation platform.


SIA plans to use these findings to highlight the critical importance of financial sustainability and local funding to both funders and CSOs in the coming years. We will be developing toolkits and providing trainings and coaching to mentor CSOs on exploring alternative business and funding models.


For questions, please contact Shawn Shieh, Founder and Director, SIA, at

Thursday, June 4, 2020

June 4 and Black Lives Matter

 Today is the 31st anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. At the time, there was division within China's leadership ranks over whether to use the military to suppress the protests. Eventually, Deng Xiaoping and the conservatives in the Politburo Standing Committee prevailed over the objections of the nominal leader, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang who sought a political solution to the protests; martial law was imposed and military units were called to Beijing. The decision to seek a military solution to the protests did not go uncontested. The general of of a garrison near Beijing refused to follow the orders and military units further from Beijing had to be called in. They eventually marched through Beijing and on June 4 cleared Tiananmen Square shooting and running over civilians. The number of people who died is only known to the Chinese government, but estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands.

It's hard not to think about China's use of military force against its own citizens in the June 4 protests without thinking of President Trump's recent threat to use military force to "dominate" protests against police violence against black Americans that have rocked U.S. cities. The parallel is a striking one, yet Donald Trump is the leader of a democracy while Deng Xiaoping was leader of an authoritarian state in which the Chinese Communist Party holds a monopoly on power. 

Many of us would read this parallel as yet one more sign of Trump's dangerous brush with authoritarianism and the threat it poses to America's increasingly fragile democracy. It also shows the moral bankruptcy of Trump's push back against China in supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Given his record, Trump's posturing against China should be taken as just that - a position taken solely for political expediency, without any moral weight behind it.

June 4, 2020
Fair Haven, New York

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Five Chinese labor activists released but not free

May 13, 2020

On May 9, China Labour Bulletin announced that five Chinese labor activists had been released after spending 15 months in detention and another 14 days in quarantine because of the pandemic. The five are Zhang Zhiru, Wu Guijun, Jian Hui, Song Jiahua and He Yuancheng. Guijun, Jian Hui and Yuancheng were well-known in the labor rights community having founded or worked for prominent labor organizations in the south of China. Jiahua, the only female in this group, was a former worker-turned-activist after her experience in 2015 representing workers at the Lide Shoe Factory in one of China's best-known collective bargaining cases.

Since their arrest back in January 2019, we have had little information about their whereabouts or circumstances. It now turns out that they were pressured to dismiss the lawyers of their choosing and accept state-appointed lawyers. Unbeknownst to their families, they were also tried behind closed doors on criminal charges of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" (聚众扰乱社会秩序罪). Zhiru and Guijun were sentenced to three years imprisonment, suspended for four years, while the others were sentenced to 18 months, suspended for two years. The suspended sentences mean that they will be closely monitored, and their movements restricted, during the period of their suspension and unable to continue their previous work.

Unlike the arrests of five prominent labor activists from Guangdong in December 2015, the arrests of these five activists garnered less international attention, coming in the midst of a string of other arrests of workers and activists, many connected to the high-profile Jasic Technology case in Shenzhen. Together, the harassment, detentions and arrests of workers and activists from 2015 to the present, all stemming from Xi Jinping's broad-ranging assault on civil society, represents the most severe crackdown on labor in China in recent memory. As I wrote in my last post on the power of labor during the pandemic, the crippling of worker centers and labor activists has made it much more difficult for civil society to monitor labor violations and assist workers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic and the opening-up phase.

On a personal note, I know four of these activists well, having worked with Zhiru, Jian Hui and Jiahua during my time at China Labour Bulletin. In 2016, we had plans to bring Jiahua and several other female worker activists to Bangalore, India to discuss their collective bargaining experience with Indian female garment workers. It would have been a meeting of labor activists from the world's two most populous countries. Unfortunately, Jiahua and the others were stopped at the border on their way to meet us in Hong Kong to board the flight to Bangalore. So in a quick act of improvisation, they put together a video message and we carried it to Bangalore where we shared it with the Indian garment workers. More recently, I was in touch with Jian Hui who had moved from Shenzhen to Changsha, in the neighboring province of Hunan, where he was excited about starting up his own worker center. The last message I received from him was on December 19, 2018, a month before he disappeared.

I've thought and worried about him and the others often since then, so news of their release is sweet indeed but comes with a bitter aftertaste knowing they will not be free to do what they love.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Remembering the power of labor during the pandemic

May 1, 2020

They are the healthcare workers in our hospitals taking care of our loved ones. They are the sanitation workers keeping our streets and parks clean and collecting our garbage. They are the public transport workers keeping subways and buses going for those of us without cars. They are the people in delivery centers packing goods we order online while sheltering at home. They are the farm workers and meat packers working to ensure we have food on the table. They are workers in factories making our personal protective equipment (PPE), thermometers and ventilators. The list could on.

In my first blogpost of 2020, I'd like to use the occasion of International Workers Day to remember the power of labor in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic by highlighting the situation of workers in China. In countries like the U.S. we are reminded of this power by reading reports of workers on the frontlines organizing for better personal protective equipment, payment of wages and hazard pay, paid leave, etc. In China, where this pandemic began and where much of our PPE is produced, news about worker grievances and protests rarely gets out thanks to heavy censorship, and the fierce repression of Chinese labor activists and organizations over the last few years. Thanks to reporting by organizations like China Europe Association for Civil Rights and China Labour Bulletin, we have some idea of how workers, and the organizations and individuals seeking to assist them, are responding during the pandemic.

Workers at a hospital construction site in Wuhan

Workers whose livelihoods are being threatened are organizing and protesting

Migrant workers in Wuhan where the epidemic began were pressed into action in early February to build hospitals to isolate and contain patients with COVID-19. Unable to return to their homes for the Chinese New Year holiday, many worked overtime with inadequate PPE to construct these hospitals. Later some of these workers organized to demand payment of wages owed to them for their work.

In the first half of March, thousands of financially struggling taxi drivers in several provinces staged protests demanding a reduction in their vehicle rental fees. While some of the organizers were fired, in many cases, they successfully forced concessions from their employers and the local government.

Even healthcare workers in some hospitals have posted online demands for payment of promised government subsidies.

Mutual-aid groups, worker organizations and volunteers are offering assistance and advocating for worker rights

In their struggles during the pandemic, workers have been abandoned by China’s only union, The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), a party-controlled organization which was set up to represent workers but often functions more as an arm of the government.

In the void left by the ACFTU, civil society groups – mutual aid groups, worker organizations, and volunteers – have emerged to offer assistance to workers and call attention to vulnerabilities faced by workers and their families.

A number of self-organized mutual-aid groups composed of students and social workers in a dozen cities came together to fund raise for PPE for sanitation workers, and to draw public attention to the contributions made by these workers.

Other volunteer groups have called attention to the “digital divide” facing children of rural migrant workers whose classes were transferred online yet who lack the equipment or internet connections enjoyed by students living in the cities.

The few worker organizations that have not been suppressed are also providing assistance. Organizations working with domestic workers have started a hotline for counseling and information about epidemic prevention. Others have opened legal aid hotlines for workers seeking information about their labor and employment rights during the pandemic.

As workplaces start back up, reports have emerged about employers opening up too soon and without providing workers with adequate PPE. In a case of a state-owned factory in Fujian that required its employees to show up before the official re-opening date, workers posted complaints to the local government online and said they would refuse to show up for work. In another case, student interns in Shenzhen were told to show up for work even though they were still owed wages. When they complained to the local government, the factory was ordered to stop its operations.

These stories from the front lines in China give us a fleeting glimpse into the pressures that workers in China face and represent only the tip of a very large iceberg. Still they remind us of the contribution of Chinese workers who make much of what we depend on, including the PPE that keeps us healthy and safe.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Chinese NGOs meet with African NGOs on holding Chinese companies accountable

Last week I had the privilege of joining a group of Chinese NGOs to attend the African Coalition of Corporate Accountability’s General Assembly in Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire. The theme of this year’s General Assembly was “Impacts, Opportunities and Accountability in the Context of Chinese Investment in Africa.” 

The Chinese NGO delegation was organized by Jingjing Zhang, founder of the China Accountability Project (CAP) based in Washington, D.C.  CAP is a nonprofit organization run by experienced Chinese public interest lawyers and environmental professionals and dedicated to holding Chinese companies accountable for their environmental impacts and rights violations. It has been bridging the knowledge gap between Chinese CSOs and their counterparts in Africa and Latin America.

This gathering was the first time ACCA had Chinese NGOs meeting up with African NGOs. I would go so far to say it was the first time independent Chinese NGOs, as opposed to official Chinese NGOs or GONGOs, had an opportunity to discuss and strategize with African NGOs about best civil society practices for managing negative impacts of Chinese investment.

As NGOs with experience working on labor and environmental protection in China, we wanted to share our experiences about working as NGOs in China on these issues and provide a more realistic picture of the state of civil society and the environmental and labor movements in China. We also wanted to provide some recommendations on how African NGOs, trade unions and communities could respond to the negative social and environmental impacts of Chinese investment in Africa. We hoped through this experience, we could move Africans away from stereotypes about Chinese and add more humanity to a Chinese face.

The first day, sitting in the meeting hall, we were welcomed by a local band of brass and drums that recalled a New Orleans blues band, followed by a group of women with painted faces doing a traditional song and dance. We were welcomed by ACCA organizers and heard a keynote address about China in Africa from a Nigerian academic doing graduate work on China in Africa. 

I gave a presentation about the labor movement in China, speaking about my experience at China Labour Bulletin where we worked with Chinese labor activists to organize workers involved in labor disputes and trained them on collective bargaining strategies and techniques. I also spoke about my trip to Zambia looking at labor relations in Chinese workplaces in the manufacturing and mining sector, and how some Chinese companies in Zambia had learned over the years to recognize independent unions – something China does not have - and engage in collective bargaining with them to improve wages and working conditions.

My other colleagues spoke about the environmental movement, and their experience holding companies and government departments accountable for pollution through campaigning and lawsuits. They showed the negative environmental impact that Chinese companies on their home country, but also how Chinese NGOs had been able to hold these companies accountable. The suggestion was that African companies could do the same but it would take time, strategizing and perhaps assistance from Chinese NGOs to figure out how best to mitigate the damages wrought by Chinese companies in Africa.

The Africans in the audience were a very curious crowd and asked a lot of questions. Their questions often reflected a pent-up anger against what they saw as the damage visited upon their communities by Chinese companies. One man asked whether it was true that China was only sending criminals to Africa. Our answer: there’s no evidence of this. Another asked what would happen if African countries simply refused to accept Chinese investment. Our answer: Chinese investors aren’t all that different from other investors; they are largely part and parcel of the global capitalist order. Just look at the pillaging of the Amazon being carried out by mostly white (non-Chinese) farmers, miners and loggers. Countries do not shut their doors to other investors who come to exploit their resources and labor, so why would you do that to Chinese investors? What we should be asking is not how to keep these investors from a particular country out (although there may be a good reason to exclude investors in certain sectors or those involved in informal/illegal activities), but how to better regulate and manage the risks that come with their investment.

The next day was spent looking at corporate accountability mechanisms ranging from grievance mechanisms, to greater transparency and disclosure of information, to lawsuits. The sessions focused on large-scale natural resource extraction projects financed through Chinese state and commercial loans. These are the projects getting the headlines in the paper, and their sheer size and amount of money involved, as well as their impact on local communities and the environment, highlights the pressing need to do something to hold these companies accountable.

In a small separate session on labor conflicts, another dimension of China in Africa came up that gets less attention but may be no less important over the longer run: the wave of Chinese companies and entrepreneurs moving into other sectors of the economy. As David Dollar points out in his 2016 Brookings Institution report, China’s Engagement with Africa: From Natural Resources to Human Resources, Chinese financing in Africa may be concentrated on the large-scale projects in the energy and transportation sectors carried out by state-owned firms, but the majority of Chinese people in Africa are dispersed across a wide range of private firms in services, manufacturing and agriculture. There is no good data on how many Chinese actually live and work in Africa. Many are said to go to work in large projects and end up overstaying their visas and going into business for themselves or working for other Chinese businesses. The mythical number of one million Chinese in Africa is often used as in Howard French’s 2014 book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa.

In Zambia, the estimates of Chinese living there ranged anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000. Whatever the numbers, the presence of Chinese migrants not only in the capital of Lusaka but also in the Copperbelt cities of Ndola and Kitwe were ubiquitous. There are many Chinese raising families there. There are Chinese malls and stores carrying mostly merchandise imported from China. There are Chinese restaurants and casinos. There are Chinese medical clinics, and so on.

Dollar suggests that the growth of Chinese in these sectors will become more important, as demand in China for natural resources tapers off over time. This shift is suggested in the title of his report, From Natural Resources to Human Resources. This smaller-scale private sector activity has not received the same amount of attention as the large financing deals in the extractive resource sector. Most importantly, its cumulative impact on the continent is growing quickly and increasingly being critically received by local populations.

This impact was the subject of our small session on labor conflicts which quickly moved to other concerns such as Chinese firms competing and crowding out African firms in manufacturing and services, lack of linkages between Chinese firms and African suppliers, Chinese workers taking jobs that could be given to Africans, and the lack of skills transfer and training for Africans.

Two days to discuss a topic as enormous as Chinese investment in Africa was clearly insufficient but it was a good start. There are many parts to the ecosystem of holding companies accountable. The focus was on large-scale, natural resource extraction projects such as mines and dams, and on the NGOs that work on transparency and information disclosure, and on mechanisms such as campaigns and lawsuits. There could easily have been another two days devoted to organizing communities, trade unions and business associations to address the social and economic impact of Chinese investment, and providing grievance, monitoring and accountability mechanisms not only to hold Chinese companies accountable but also to hold governments in those African countries accountable for enabling the negative impacts of Chinese and other foreign investment. As Charles Kojo Vandyck points out, CSOs in Africa can also “trigger conversations about the UN Guiding Principles through multisectoral convenings and forums” and in regional institutions such as “the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) and the East African Community (EAC).”

One point that was made through the two-day meeting was that the situation in Africa is not all that dissimilar to the situation in China. In both places, laws, regulations and guidelines are being drafted that incorporate international standards. This legal framework creates various entry points for civil society to hold the state and companies accountable. This is a point I came back to in my presentation when I concluded with three hard-earned lessons we should keep in mind:

One was that China and Africa have experience with creating laws that incorporate international standards to varying degrees, but these laws can have shortcomings or are simply not implemented or enforced. Here is where civil society comes in.

Second, these laws are not going to be much use unless NGOs, workers and communities work together to call for improvements in the laws, and hold governments, banks, international financial institutions and companies accountable for complying with those laws.

Third, civil society needs to go beyond just naming and shaming to do the hard work of organizing workers and communities, and engaging, pressuring and negotiating with companies, governments and other stakeholders if we are to achieve true win-win solutions for companies, workers and communities, and realize the still-distant promise of what Vandyck calls sustainable businesses which he defines as:

“….enterprises that generate respect for human rights across their value chains. This type of business does not only use a percentage of its profits to promote a social cause through corporate social responsibility, but it also safeguards human rights within its operations and the communities where its products or services are used.”

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.