Work and rights in the China of Xi Jinping: open access studies by 'Marie Curie' Fellow Ivan Franceschini

Ivan Franceschini is Marie Curie Fellow at Ca' Foscari University and at the Australian Centre on China in the World. His current research focuses on the question of work in China in a global perspective, with particular attention to the issues of worker activism and the awareness of rights among Chinese workers.

For a decade, from 2006 to 2015, he lived in Beijing where he worked as a journalist and as a consultant in the field of development cooperation. «At that time - he tells us - I had the opportunity of witnessing first-hand the extraordinary flourishing of Chinese civil society in what can retrospectively be considered a 'golden age' of activism and civic participation in China, before seeing its decline under Xi Jinping's leadership».

With a degree in Languages, Economics and Institutions of Asian and Mediterranean Africa, and a PhD from Ca' Foscari, Franceschini has followed the evolution of the work of NGOs for a decade, from the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008 to today.
In recent years, he has also worked extensively in Cambodia, investigating the impact of Chinese presence on industrial relations in the local textile industry. Over the years, he has published a dozen books on China, on topics ranging from human trafficking to new media, from industrial relations to civil society. In 2011, he collaborated with Tommaso Facchin - also an ex-cafoscarino - to shoot Dreamwork China, a documentary on the new generation of migrant workers in China. The collaboration continues today and the pair are currently completing a new film on the world of textile workers in Cambodia.

Can you explain the Chinese social and political context in which NGOs work?

These organizations appeared for the first time in China in the mid-1990s. It has always been a small-scale reality, with a handful of employees and makeshift offices mostly located near working class communities. Traditionally, these groups have focused on four types of activities: the opening of cultural centres for workers, offering courses on specific topics or organizing recreational activities; the organization of campaigns for the dissemination of rights, for example through the distribution of leaflets and other materials on labour legislation; conducting social investigations aimed at advocacy policy; and providing legal advice to workers struggling with labour disputes. Because they focused on labour legislation (and therefore on the official legal discourse), these activities were relatively   safe from a political point of view - I say 'relatively' because the theme of the work still remains very sensitive for the Chinese Communist Party, which still continues to present itself as the 'vanguard of the Chinese working class’. However, dissatisfied with the obvious limitations of these strategies, at the beginning of this decade some organizations tried to go beyond this 'legalistic' approach and started to promote a   new approach centred on collective bargaining, and then on the idea that it was necessary to organize the workers themselves in order to put them in a position to deal directly with the employers. It should be noted that Chinese legislation does not provide for collective contracting, merely contemplating a watered-down form of 'collective bargaining ' based on the assumption of an identity of interests between the worker and the company. In addition, independent trade unions are not allowed in China - the only legally recognized trade union in the country is The National Federation of Chinese Trade Unions (FNSC), a mass organization that today has over 300 million members and continues to function as a Leninist 'transmission belt’. Coming in the context of a more general authoritarian drift   in The Party-state under Xi Jinping, the choice of some NGOs to adopt a collective bargaining strategy has put these organizations on a collision course with both the Party and the FNSC, which has resulted in a very harsh wave of repression that continues today.

Can you tell us about the results of your recent study on repression of labour NGOs in China?

Since their inception, Chinese labour NGOs have found themselves confronted with hostility   from the Party-state. Over the years, activists in these organizations have been repeatedly threatened with fines, evictions, arrests, and broken career prospects. Some were beaten up while their offices were being looted. In many cases, their family members have received threatening visits from officials of various state agencies. Yet, these 'raw' forms of repression have rarely proved effective in deterring activists - in many cases, they have simply achieved the opposite effect, reinforcing the motivation of the individuals in question. I am thinking, for example, of the extraordinary case of a worker who spent twelve months in an overcrowded cell between 2013 and 2014 for participating in a strike and who, after being released, instead of remaining silent, decided to open his own organization for helping other workers. The point is that for years the repression in China was a cyclical phenomenon, in which short periods of high tension occurred during periods of relative tranquillity in which one could work with relative security. This has changed with the rise to power of Xi Jinping   in 2013.Under the administration of Xi, the repression has become much more sophisticated and has assumed permanent characteristics. This happened in at least two ways. Firstly, in addition to 'traditional' violence, Chinese authorities have made considerable efforts to prosecute activists in recent years by extensively publicizing artfully crafted court cases through media campaigns aimed at destroying the reputation of these individuals, painting them as puppets in the hands of 'hostile foreign forces’. Secondly, the Beijing government has adopted an impressive set of civilian laws and regulations that not only impose severe restrictions on registration and operability for NGOs, but also severely restrict access to those foreign funds from which Chinese organizations active in politically sensitive fields - such as workers' rights - are dependent for survival. These changes threaten the very survival of NGOs in China. In the last couple of years, many organizations have ceased to operate due to lack of financial resources. A couple of organizations still continue to promote collective bargaining, but they do so in a very discreet manner, keeping away from strikes and protests and clearly informing workers of the risks inherent in this strategy. Most work NGOs have closed down, or decided to redirect their activities as service providers for the government or business.

What are the possible evolutionary scenarios of the current situation?

I have just returned from a stay of over a month in China, during which I have met some of the activists with whom I have been in contact for almost a decade. The situation is dramatic   and does not look like it will improve. Just a week before my arrival, the Chinese government launched yet another attack on work NGOs, accusing them of being agents of 'hostile foreign forces' - in this case, other Hong Kong-based NGOs - committed to stirring up workers' protests in China. The organization that was under attack was not in the least involved in what it was accused of, but the Chinese government nonetheless decided to use the work NGOs as a scapegoat once again. This is for two reasons: first of all, to disguise its growing inability to manage worker dissatisfaction; secondly, to distract the public's attention from the fact that students from some of the elite universities in Beijing had mobilized in solidarity with the workers (for which they were promptly arrested). There student mobilization   was a wake-up call for the Party, not just because these young people described their struggle by reclaiming the 'Maoist' vocabulary of the class struggle, but above all because the alliance between workers and students brought to mind the mobilisations in other times, not least the events of the spring of 1989. The point is that by eliminating work NGOs from the scene - whose emphasis on labour legislation exercised a moderate influence on workers' protests in China - the Party created a vacuum that risks being filled by other actors with more radical political demands. Without the pragmatism of work NGOs, there is a possibility that workers will advance far more radical demands than the simple application of existing labour standards or the pretension of sitting at a negotiating table with employers. This is certainly not a bad thing, but it will inevitably result in a tightening of Party positions - especially in the context of the current slowdown in Chinese economic growth and the trade war with the United States.

The magazine he founded, Made in China Journal, has also become a reference point for a large community of activists and policy-makers. Articles that have appeared in the magazine have been quoted a dozen times in the last annual report of the American Congress on China. Can you tell us about the idea behind Made in China?

The Made in China Journal - which I edit along with Nicholas Loubere of the University of Lund - was established at the beginning of 2016 with the intention of creating a bridge between the academic community engaged in research on political and social issues in China - in particular in the areas of employment, civil society and rights - and a more general public. Almost three years later, I think I can say that the experiment is working. To date we have been fortunate to count on over one hundred authors based in dozens of institutions around the world. All these contributors - some at the beginning of their careers, others already established in their field - have shown extraordinary willingness. Not only have they agreed to write for us in a language very different from that of other academic publications to which they are generally accustomed, but they also answered with extraordinary patience our endless comments and reviews. As for the readers, over the years we have obtained a loyal following of people who download our publications, share them on social media and discuss them privately or in public. Some issues of the magazine have been downloaded more than 16,000 times, a good result if one considers the standards of current academic publications. The list of our members also reveals how the magazine has a certain following not only among academics, but also among journalists, trade unionists, activists, and policy-makers, which was one of our goals from the beginning.  Made in China remains a constantly evolving project. At the moment, we are working on three fronts. Firstly, we will soon move the magazine to a new site that we hope will be more functional and easy to consult. In doing so, we will restructure our editorial group to include experts in areas where we have so far proved to be rather weak, for example on gender issues. Secondly, we are establishing partnerships with other media that share our principles. In particular, we have just launched a collaboration with the Chinese academic website CNPolitics to make some of our content available in Chinese and with Hong Kong Free Press to distribute some of our articles on their platform. Finally, we are about to launch a new series of open access books, which will be added to the series of Made in China Yearbooks that we already publish with ANU Press. The first volume - due out in March 2019 - will be a sort of critical dictionary of Chinese communism entitled Afterlives of Chinese Communism in which we will gather over fifty essays written by as many academics in different disciplines spread all over the world.

Why did you choose to work in open-access mode?

All the Made in China initiatives - the magazine, the books, the summer schools - are entirely free and will remain so in the future. This is because my partners and I believe with conviction in the importance of open access as a tool to protect academic freedom and the free circulation of ideas. This is even more relevant in the field of studies on China. In the last couple of years, several international academic publishers have succumbed to the pressure exerted by the Chinese authorities and, without any shame, have blocked access to troublesome content from their sites in China. Other publishers have not hesitated to resort to more subtle forms of self-censorship so as not to risk losing access to the Chinese market. Focusing on the very serious responsibilities of Chinese authorities in limiting academic freedom in China and abroad, we risk losing sight of the fact that such situations are inevitable when academic publishing ceases to be a public service and it begins to be dominated by purely commercial logic. Since publishers, worried about losing access to profits from the Chinese market or other economic benefits, are not willing to take a firm stand against any form of censorship, the only way to counteract these phenomena is to eliminate profit from the equation, the re-appropriation of academic publishing through open access initiatives. Our   Made in China Journal is an experiment in this sense.