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Add Time :2011-07-01      Hits:3438

Isabel Crook

June 2011



       Soon after the setting up of the PRC, the Gung Ho movement and ICCIC were both closed down. Thirty years later. With Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up,” Rewi Alley, Chen Hansheng, Lu Guangmian and others asked permission to re-establish Gung Ho cooperatives. This was granted in 1983, and this was followed by a rapid growth in cooperatives.  Some time later Rewi complained bitterly that in fact most of the newly sprung up coops were not coops.  The problem was that with the Deng reforms, small private enterprises were encouraged.  However many entrepreneurs feared that the policy might change and they would be branded as capitalists so they set up ventures which they called “cooperatives.”  To tackle this problem, Rewi and his Chinese colleagues asked that the government allow ICCIC to be revived. This was granted in 1987, and as former supporters of Gung Ho cooperatives, David and I were on the list as members.


       Some time in the 1990s I became a member of the executive and became personally involved in this effort to find an effective way of promoting coops up to the International standards.  

However forty years had passed and only two of our experienced old organizers remained.  One of them, Fu Bin. had a serious heart condition.  Nevertheless she attended our meetings regularly even when (I am sure) the doctor would had insisted that she stay at home. The other was Que Bingguang who was doing a good job in Gansu. His method was to visit a coop and stay there for a week or so, talking to the members about the nature of cooperatives and how they were getting along.  He encouraged them to bring up any problem they had, but the problems they brought up were economic ones.  For example our soap coop was losing its buyers. Que took same samples to Lanzhou, to have them analyzed and discovered that there was one essential element missing.  He returned with the required supplies, and in due course the coop-brand soap became popular again.  However when it came to discussing management, members were very hesitant to say anything.   Que would tell them where he was staying and to drop in if they wished to. So things were moving along in Gansu.


       Here in Beijing we were feeling our way. In 1994, with the approach of the 1995 World Women’s Conference in Beijing, some of us on the executive and the staff - Lu Wanru and others - decided we ourselves should start organizing women’s coops in a nearby counties. The Women’s Federations were eager to improve the economic conditions of women, and welcomed us to organize women’s coops.  But first they wanted us to win the support of the County government. We were invited to a dinner with the county leadership.  And we won their warm support - despite the fact that one such dinner, one of our members, an ardent feminist, accused the county head himself of being a male chauvinist!


       These women’s cooperatives taught us much. We had one coop that was flourishing because a member had a special skill and she was willing to train up the other members.  Before they were fully trained, however, the woman’s husband told her she had choose between him and coop.  Regretfully she had to choose the husband.   Lesson:  we need to promote understanding of coops throughout the village community, and especially among family members.


A second case was that of a coop producing special type mushrooms for a highly profitable export to Japan.  The coop flourished for a while, but soon many entrepreneurs got in on this profitable trade, with the result that the price collapsed.  Lesson:  we have to have a better understanding of the market.


In a third case, a coop had set up a workshop to produce - I forget what - but it    burnt down.   How this happened was never made clear.  There was already another workshop in the same product in the village - but there was no evidence of sabotage.  Lesson:  we need a system for insuring coop property.


These were the early days.  In due course we promoted two excellent organizers on our staff - Guo Lina and Yuan Yinghua.  While working in Jilin Province, they were particularly pleased with two coops, so members of the executive went up to see them. 


The first one had been set up by the local doctor in order for members to solve his fellow villagers lack of money for education for their children, for sickness insurance and pensions for the elderly.  As a result every family in the village joined. The village income came mainly from raising pigs.  So this became a pig-raising coop, and with collective purchases and sales, much labour was saved and much better prices.  But our two organizers, who had been living in the village and noted that there was little in the way of culture or entertainment - so they had set up singing and dancing groups - which livened village social life.


Our executive sent up a group to check out these successes.  As we had come from Beijing, the county head and a few of his companions accompanied us to the village.   As we were approaching the village we saw the road was lined with men, women and children, singing and dancing and waving banners to welcome us. 


We then all crowded into the home of the doctor, and our members started asking questions.  These were not answered by the doctor himself, but by volunteers from the floor, with people eagerly breaking in to add their opinions. The county head was so impressed that when we returned to the provincial capital he reported that the village was just like “back in the old days when the relations of leaders and the people were like ‘fish in the water’.”

   The second cooperative was entirely different but equally successful. It was headed by an enthusiastic, charismatic woman leader. The provincial leadership decided that cooperatives should be widely promoted throughout the province, and decided this woman should take a leading role in this endeavour. We left Jilin with a feeling of pride and accomplishment. Some time later some of our members returned. They found that the doctor’s coop had suffered a setback and that the woman leader was promoting coops, but no longer of the Gung Ho model. Lesson:  hard-won victories in a new an unfamiliar terrain need ongoing attention and consolidation.


       We, the executive of ICCIC, received valuable international help. In the early days, visits to the Mondragon Movement in Spain an important, though I never went.  As I recall the most important lesson we learned was that the necessity of on-going “education” - not just training but broadening one’s understanding and outlook.


       Later on it was the Canadian Cooperatives Association that gave us invaluable support and training - for a period of 6 years or more. One important lesson we learned was how to approach problems through collective discussion assessing our strengths and weaknesses; and the advantages and threats posed by the situation we were facing. The method was called SWOT, for short. 


       Great steps forward have been taken since I retired from the executive ten or more years ago.   When I was on the executive many of us thought of coops as being genuine or not. At one point we sent out a team into the field to assess each of our cooperatives.  It took some months and the report showed that most of them had one failing or another.  This was discouraging to us and to the cooperative.  But now we have a new approach: the “Ladder” - a ten-step approach to becoming a full-fledged cooperative. A co-op may be only on the 2nd or 3rd rung, but it can be given guidance on how to climb higher. This positive approach has replaced the negative one.

   I treasure these memories of ICCIC’s efforts to carry forward the old Gung Ho spirit of cooperation:  “Each for all and hard work” and congratulate the current executive and secretariat for their vision, hard work and great accomplishments since I retired.


       Let’s hold a grand celebration of coop day on 2 July, and International Cooperative Year in 2012!

Copyright: International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives
Address: Room 206, Library Building, Beijing Bailie University, No. 1 Shuangqing Road, Beijing 100085 CHINA
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