Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Democratic member control in Chinese cooperatives: A study of the Gung Ho Movement

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posted on 2021-11-15, 20:39 authored by Reynolds, Parley

Since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has encouraged various forms of collective agricultural organizations in an effort to improve economic development for those living in rural areas. The introduction of a Specialized Farmers’ Cooperative Law in 2007 has seen an upsurge in the formation and registration of agricultural cooperatives in China. The law specifically states that Chinese cooperatives must be democratically managed. The main aim of this thesis is to explore the various meanings of democracy within Chinese cooperatives. To do this, the meaning and definition of the cooperative enterprise in China, is also scrutinized. Modern day cooperatives in Shandan County, that have been historically associated with the ‘Gung Ho’ movement, are the empirical focus of this thesis.  This thesis makes an original contribution to the field of workplace democracy by presenting a qualitative exploration of democracy within cooperative organizations in China. Over recent years, there have been a limited number of efforts by scholars to quantitatively measure the level of democracy within Chinese cooperatives through the use of large-scale surveys. In contrast, this thesis draws on ethnographic principles of data collection. A series of in-depth interviews, conducted over a seven month period in China, provides a rich data source to examine the meanings of democracy within Chinese cooperatives. Unlike the studies previously conducted within this academic field in China, this thesis does not assume there is necessarily a single appropriate definition that can accurately measure the complex concept of democracy on a quantitative scale. This thesis adopts a critical approach to the research questions based on the analytical theories of Michel Foucault, in particular, his theories of power/ knowledge relations. The discourse(s) that interview informants used to describe their interactions and experiences within their cooperatives allow for an exploration of the power relations that exist to circulate, regulate, and resist the discourse(s) on democracy. This thesis presents an alternative perspective to the commonly used quantitative studies and provides an alternative approach that is able to further analyze and understand the function and presence of democracy in Chinese cooperatives. The use of this theoretical approach leads to a discussion on the complex power relationships between cooperative members and their leaders.  This thesis presents three main arguments that emerged from the discourses explored in the discourse analysis. Firstly, the discourse of ‘international standards’ presents a tension in the ways a Chinese cooperative can be defined. Chinese cooperatives that may not adhere to internationally defined standards of a ‘true’ cooperative will often meet the local requirements to be legally recognized as a cooperative in China. Secondly, a discourse of ‘competency’ meant most cooperative members interviewed see little need, or desire, to actively participate in management decisions. For members, it is more important that information is made transparent and that the decisions made on their behalf are for the members’ financial benefit. Thirdly, a discourse of ‘competency’ led to elections where, given an opportunity to elect a leader for the cooperative, the cooperative members would often choose an existing village leader or village cadre for the role. The reinforcement of existing power structures is not considered by cooperative members to be a negative outcome of these elections. Cooperative members stressed the need for them to have strong ties to government officials in order to have any chance of developing a successful business venture in China.  On a practical level, ‘workplace democratization’ is argued to be a valuable starting point to explore power relations within cooperatives. The discussion section of these thesis considers the influence of demographics, culture, and the political environment on developing workplace democratization in Chinese cooperatives. The arguments made in this thesis are relevant to cooperatives and other forms of organisations more broadly that are committed to workplace democratization, both within and outside of China.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Industrial Relations

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970115 Expanding Knowledge in Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Victoria Management School


Blumenfeld, Stephen; Jones, Deborah