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An Unlikely NGO, Unlikely to Stir Protest

GB Geo-Blog

An Unlikely NGO, Unlikely to Stir Protest

Far away from the displays of military prowess at Tiananmen Square lie a number of cobwebbed communities of migrants.  In a suburb of Beijing, an estimated 100,000 migrants raise families in brick huts of ten to twelve square meters.  Tucked in the midst of these huts is a modest grassroots organization founded by Su, a celebrity migrant woman from Jiangsu who married into a Beijing residency card户口 but embraces the migrant community as her own.  She chose to plant her organization in the suburbs because this is where the poor, unskilled migrants raise their families.  Funded entirely by a modest grant from Oxfam Hong Kong, the organization opened a one classroom school for migrant children and three second hand clothing stores—a type of social entrepreneurship.  But its biggest struggle is not funding; it is community mobilization.

Trust is a costly commodity.  When Su first approached the community, the migrants were deeply suspicious of her intentions.  Some suspected she was a Falungong practitioner or a salesperson for Amway.  Nobody had a clue what a non-government organization was.   “Commoners only trust the government,” said Su.  “They cannot imagine any other type of organization because the government is in charge of absolutely everything.”  So it was only after the organization had established ties with the neighborhood association 居委会 (the lowest branch of the government) that the migrants start to send their children to the school.  Slowly, Su and her organization were embraced as part of the neighborhood and were deemed as ‘good people.’   

But life on the margins is always full of uncertainty.  And good people can quickly become suspects.  The entire community is rumored to bull-dozed in the coming months by real estate developers, and if that happens, Su’s NGO will go down with the rest of the huts.  Landlords are in a frantic rush to build extensions to the existing huts so they can claim more compensation from the developers.  But their tenants—tens of thousands of migrants—will be driven even farther away from the city where they make their livelihoods. 

Protest is not in the vocabulary of the migrants in this community.  According to Su, encouraging them to articulate their grievances is like moving a mountain.  The migrants themselves perceive community organizers to be trouble makers and anti-government rebels.  They do not want to be associated with people who are at odds with authority.  But their hesitancy is not just due to fear of repression.  They are also held back, ironically, by a collective mentality: “It’s not just my hut that will be bulldozed; my neighbor and my neighbor’s neighbors’ huts are also going to be torn down.”  So far, this mentality has stymied rather than provoked public grievances.  Unlike the petitioners whose grievances are often individualized—these migrants are not indignant because being driven out happens to be a fate that everybody they know has fallen into.  In this odd form of equality, an otherwise unjust policy is tolerated.  Being driven out of their homes has become a normalized routine for these migrants, and it is unknown when they will, in Su’s words, “awaken from their slumber” to realize that they do have rights and that these rights have been violated.


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  1. Robert O'Brien October 19, 2009

    In my work with migrant laborers, I have been consistently surprised by how little they know about the rights granted to them by Chinese law. Their knowledge of relevant laws was limited to begin with and has weakened significantly in the wake of Hu-Wen era social reforms. Despite the proliferation of NGOs, both domestic and international, that focus on China’s migrant workers, they seem to lack a sense of political consciousness. Why do you think that is?


  2. Diana Fu October 21, 2009

    Robert, I’ve asked the same question before. The reply I got from one NGO organizer who is a migrant worker himself is this: it’s not the case that Chinese migrant workers don’t know they have rights (over time pay, pay for work during holidays, etc), but they have alot of considerations to take into account before they actually demand their rights such as: 1) Am I going to lose my job after I confront my boss 2) How effective will mediatation/arbitration/litigation be? Will it get me anywhere? 3) how much does this offense matter to me? For instance, if a migrant worker is very used to being kicked out of their rented places, they may not feel that it’s worth putting up a fight against housing developers. in other words, it may be the case that they do know their rights, its that they must calculate risks and benefits of fighting for these rights. Of course this depends on which migrants and may differ across regions, industry, and gender.

  3. Kevin October 24, 2009

    Great article, Diana.

    I agree with both Robert and you that apparently not all migrant workers know about the labor laws, especially the new labor contract law; but for those who do know, it is often too intimidating, pointless or costly to actually pursue it. For example, employers are legally required to sign a labor law contract when they hire workers but actually very few do. Many migrant workers do know they need to sign some sort of contract, even though they may not know the specifics, but very often employers simply dismiss them, saying if you want me to sign a contract I simply won’t hire you. Given the much weaker position the migrant workers find themselves vis-a-vis their employers, they just go along.

  4. Kevin October 24, 2009

    By the way, congratulations on the publication of your article in Modern China.

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