By Jasmine Qu
Editor’s note: Among many issues created by China’s rapid development, the issue of organizations not controlled by the one-party state has repeatedly emerged. Before “Reform and Opening” the socialist system sponsored and controlled all organizations, whether national, provincial, or local; economic, social, political, or cultural. The recent advent of entrepreneurialism, a freer labor market, a freer press, and the (limited) rule of law has challenged the government to loosen up. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are a particularly interesting phenomenon. They were unheard of before the 1980s. Still in their infancy, they face official suspicion and have no tradition of private philanthropy to tap. In this follow-up article to her account of waste pickers in the November-December issue, Jasmine Fei Qu sheds light on one particular case, and reflects on the difficulties facing China’s NGOs.
The Institute of Contemporary Observation (ICO) is a China-based NGO in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. My two-month internship there in 2006 offered me an opportunity to work with waste pickers as well as a valuable experience inside a Chinese NGO.
In some ways, what ICO has achieved is very impressive. Its name has appeared in major international newspapers because of its expertise on the south China labor movement. Recently, its director was even interviewed by the Brunswick Times Record for a report about Shenzhen city. Besides its reputation as a research institute, it has conducted several projects relating to south China migrant workers, including a Migrant Worker Community College, in cooperation with UC Berkeley, and the waste picker project. It has offered free or low-cost education and vocational training to 3,000 workers. It also provides training programs to factories and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) audits to multinational companies. It is a partner with many famous brands, such as DuPont, Fuji, Xerox and Nokia. More