Exploring consumer cooperatives in China


IATP President Jim Harkness reports from Beijing on a workshop on consumer cooperatives. See the full collection of photos from the workshop in the Facebook photo album.

Zhang Yuqing a food  activist from Nanjing Zhang Yinghui Beijing's First Organic Farmer's  Market organizer and Chen Hsiu Chih Board Chair of Taiwan 

I couldn’t help but feel strange today, watching activists in Communist China listen with rapt attention as American and German speakers explained the theory and practices of cooperatives. After all, virtually all of China was organized into cooperatives in the 1950s, in one step on the very fast route (between 1949-58) from feudalism to Mao’s version of socialism. Of course, those coops did NOT sell Marie’s Gluten Free Organic Flax Crackers. And whatever ideological stigma may have been attached to that earlier form of social organization, the people in today’s workshop see “consumer cooperatives” not as a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but as one of the few tools they have to secure access to safe, healthy food in a society where common people live at the whims of an arbitrary state and poorly-regulated market. (In above photo: Zhang Yuqing, a food activist from Nanjing; Zhang Yinghui, Beijing’s First Organic Farmer’s Market organizer; and Chen Hsiu Chih, Board Chair of Taiwan Homemaker’s Union Consumer Coop)

This meeting is a follow-up to the international conference on sustainable agriculture and food systems that we co-hosted with several Chinese and foreign partners in March. Most of that conference focused on food production, but it also became clear that farmers aren’t the only ones losing out in China’s food system. Many of the questions and comments were from consumers worried about food safety and skeptical of government “green food” and organic certification schemes. For them, Community Supported Agriculture and coops show promise as ways to regain control over their food supply. In her travels around China, IATP’s Chang Tianle met a variety of groups and individuals at various stages of considering these ideas. And the China office of the Social Science Research Council expressed interest in organizing a small workshop to bring different groups together for a focused discussion on food coops.

Food activists are  developing their plan for a coop in a park

There are participants from all over China, here for a variety of reasons: rural organizers who see coops as a new way to connect farmers and consumers: a buying club associated with Waldorf Schools in Guangzhou wondering how they can organize themselves more effectively; an Urban-Rural Fair Trade Store that can’t figure out how to set prices or manage stock; an NGO in Henan province that’s worried about food safety; and a community-run handicrafts shop from Beijing that’s wondering about expanding into food sales.

What they all share is not simply an interest in safe food, (although that is a universal worry in China) but a concern for rebuilding community; for relationships that go beyond the cash nexus. China is a society that is undergoing incredibly rapid changes, and the autonomy and mobility that have replaced the smothering embrace of village and commune life are experienced as both freedom and alienation. The disruption of traditional sources of cultural meaning under Mao, followed by the abandonment of Maoism itself and its replacement with “To Get Rich Is Glorious” has left a spiritual void that some people feel very acutely. Maybe this is why so many of China’s organic farmers and fair traders are also devout Buddhists or Christians.

Jim and Lindy

But I digress! Although the workshop was organized on short notice, we were able to invite speakers from the U.S., Germany and Taiwan to participate. We also got an eye-opening introduction to Japanese grocery coops – which have 22 million members! – from professor Li Zhonghua of Qingdao Agricultural University.

As a proud Minnesotan, I was delighted that we were able to get Lindy Bannister as a speaker. Lindy is the general manager of The Wedge, based in Minneapolis and America’s largest single-store coop. (It’s just a few blocks from IATP’s offices, so staff get a lot of lunches and snacks there.) (In photo: Here I am with Lindy)

Coop plans

After hearing the international case studies and nine short reports from nascent coops or related efforts in China, participants split into groups and developed draft “business plans” for coops in four different cities. These discussions revealed that for all of China’s uniqueness, people here are grappling with the same issues as those who organize or join coops anywhere. How do we balance environmental or social concerns with the need for competitive prices? What are the obligations of members? What should we sell, where can we get it and how do we negotiate prices with our suppliers? How big should we be, and how much like a conventional supermarket in our organization or product mix?

In the end, many of the draft plans were similar, and similarly modest. Several people had begun by speculating about the need to reach a certain scale in order to cover costs, and there was talk of rather ambitious financing plans. Most final reports seemed focused on starting small and keeping it simple, aiming for a few hundred to a thousand members in the first few years. Legal status is a particular concern here, of course. As one person said, “We’re too small to be bothered now, but at some point, local tax and commercial authorities will come around.” Many of the financial and legal aspects of cooperatives and coop financing seem to be in a gray area. Overall, people seemed encouraged by the knowledge that all coops start small, and that there are many different possible models out there.

The group ended not with a bold declaration, but with strong interest in continuing the learning process and supporting each other as the growing variety of experiments with consumer coops in China moves ahead.