What happens to labor advocacy groups that try to help workers organize in China’s factories? For Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Dispute Service Center, it’s meant repeated evictions from their offices, investigations for tax violations, and police warnings to the staff to stop their work or face unspecified consequences.
When Chunfeng advised striking workers at a Nike supplier in Dongguan, Guangdong, last month, police grabbed two of the center’s staff. “The party is afraid to give authority to the people,” says Chunfeng’s director, Zhang Zhiru, one of the two detained, who was held in a villa for two days. “They are afraid a strong civil society will destabilize their control.” Zhang says his colleague, Lin Dong, is still being held and has been accused of disturbing social order, a criminal offense.
“Civil society” is the slightly wonky term used by social activists worldwide to describe the network of nonprofit, nongovernment organizations, from churches to tenant groups and labor associations, that address people’s needs for faith, food, shelter, justice, health care, and respect in the workplace. Civil society is supposed to turn ordinary people into informed citizens ready to resist encroachments on their rights. In China, civil society has started putting down roots. But a crackdown by the authorities on the boldest civil groups may change that.
In the last few years, as authorities loosen controls, hundreds of thousands of organizations started to spring up. Well-known groups include the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and the health-focused Beijing Yirenping Center. Today more than 1.5 million officially registered groups address pollution, gender discrimination, and prejudice against those with HIV/AIDS, among other causes. Add in groups that aren’t officially designated NGOs, but operate as such, and the total could reach 10 million, says Karla Simon, author of Civil Society in China and chair of the International Center for Civil Society Law.
The social organizations (the name preferred by officials who don’t like “civil society,” with its connotation of independence from party control) used to focus on simple services, such as aiding the elderly or helping with disaster relief. Now they’re pushing for change. That includes educating people about their legal rights, mobilizing social media campaigns to lobby for stricter labor and environmental laws, and pressing companies to be better corporate citizens, says Shawn Shieh, the English-language editor of China Development Brief, which reports on civil society efforts.
Under President Xi Jinping, groups that venture into politically sensitive territory are under threat. Working for ethnic minority rights is banned—Tibet and the Uighur region of Xinjiang are the only places that don’t allow direct registration of social organizations.
Helping workers organize is riskier than ever. “Most groups related to labor issues can’t get registered at all, and their situation is actually getting worse,” says Dee Lee, director of the Inno Community Development Organization in Guangzhou. He says his group has successfully registered but carefully avoids any activities that could be seen as promoting collective bargaining. “The general game of survival is the biggest challenge facing labor groups,” he says.
Finally, any attempt to organize nationwide gets crushed, as was the case with the New Citizens Movement. The organization wanted officials to publicly declare their wealth and called for equal access to education for migrant workers’ children. In 2013 sympathizers held monthly dinners across China to discuss reform. In January, New Citizens’ most visible member, Xu Zhiyong, was sentenced to four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” “What really gets you into trouble is the way you organize,” says Simon. “Every communist party knows that the way to develop is through cells. When they see, ‘oh s---, they are emulating us!’ then they decide to crack down.”