On New Zealander Rewi Alley’s 80th birthday, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping described him as “our veteran fighter, old friend and comrade”. Few foreigners have played as significant a role in China as Alley. He was the father of the nation’s industrial co-operatives. In a sense Alley had been groomed from an early age for the work he would come to do. His parents were both teachers. His mother was a suffragette and his father spent his last 20 years working for rural co-operatives. After fighting in World War I, Alley tried to make a go of farming in recession-hit New Zealand. After six years of struggle he travelled to Shanghai in 1927. It was while working as a chief factory inspector that his eyes were opened to the appalling conditions in Chinese factories.

The Japanese invasion of China a decade later gave Alley the opportunity to do something about what he had seen. He founded the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Co-operatives (ICCIC). The Chinese name for ‘China Industrial Co-operatives’ was Zhongguo Gongye Hezhoushe, abbreviated to Gong He and then to Gung Ho. Rewi served as the ICCIC’s secretary and Madame Soong Ching Ling, the widow of the Chinese revolutionary and president Sun Yat-sen, was president. Within two years more than 30,000 members were working in 3000 co-operatives in 16 Chinese provinces. But the Gung Ho co-operatives had dwindled by the 1950s, and their profiles were further reduced during China’s Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976.

It was not until government reforms were introduced that Alley, then 85, revived the movement. Grassroots co-operatives began to spring up in Beijing where Alley lived, Hubei, where he had worked in flood relief in the 1930s, and Shandan, where he had sited his school in the 1940s. Gung Ho has since gone on to work with the World Bank, national co-operative associations and NGOs to establish more Chinese co-operatives.

Story from the book “Building a Better World: 100 stories of co-operation“, published by the ICA to commemorate the IYC.