Friday, May 27, 2011

Social Work

Monday morning marked the start of the 2011 International Conference on Social Work and Community Development. This was a joint conference organized by Widener and CTBU faculty that involved participants from Widener, over 50 Chinese universities, and several representatives from government ministries.

The connection between social work and government was not simply the rhetoric of speeches, but is increasingly conceived of as central for addressing pressing social issues. In other posts I’ve made observations about the effects of China’s economic restructuring on the lives of the most vulnerable within under-resourced communities. The reality is that not only has the economy in China changed since the 1980s, but governance has changed as well. As Xu Yongyang, a professor and dean from Shanghai, aptly pointed out in his speech during the opening ceremony of the conference: prior to the 1990s, in Chinese terms, there was “no separation between government and enterprise”: “Zheng–qi bu fen” (正企不分). The master narrative on this is that the state managed the economy in ways that ensured the provision of the basic needs of the population (food, housing, jobs, schools, healthcare).

In his speech, Professor Xu highlighted problems in the real-estate market in particular as leading to a “decrease in people’s feelings of happiness” with the soaring of housing prices. His PowerPoint presentation included pictures that have become iconic of China’s recent development and internationalization: the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, which housed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, and the Shanghai World Financial Center, a 101-story building in the Pudong District of Shanghai. He never criticized the central government’s priorities directly, but he did point out that although in 2007 China’s GNP went from 25 billion to 33 billion, people in universities haven’t felt this growth in salaries, leading to resentment by some of China’s academics. He then added that, of China’s population of 1.3 billion, there is an estimated 842.9 million who are members of disadvantaged groups who have not benefited from development (unemployed rural and city dwellers, the disabled, the elderly, and liushou children left behind by migrant parents).

Xu went on to directly state that social work is important to the continued governance of the ruling party. According to Xu, the Party (the CCP)—no longer connected to the people via workplaces, hospitals, and schools—now lacks a platform in society and is losing its influence among the people. Xu argued that social work, in the absence of strong governmental organizations, may be the key to ensuring social stability.

I sat on the edge of my seat listening to Professor Xu speak. I know we are in Sichuan and “the emperor is far”, but sitting in the audience were social work professionals and scholars from far-flung regions of the nation: Beijing Municipality, Shanghai Municipality, Anhui Province, Guizhou Province, Yunnan Province, Tianjin Municipality, Guangdong Province, Heilongjiang Province (bordering on Siberia!), Henan Province, and the city of Nanjing. There were also a number of government representatives present from various levels of ministries of Social Affairs and Civil Affairs, as well as Party members (some of whom were also research faculty). But no one seemed to flinch, not even the interpreter who was providing accurate simultaneous translation in beautiful near-native English.

But perhaps Xu’s broad statements were no surprise to his Chinese audience because the Central government confirmed the centrality of social work as “a new way of governing” as far back as 2006 in a speech made by President Hu Jintao. This priority was reconfirmed by the Central government in the last few weeks when Hu apparently said that the “People’s Livelihood” is a pressing concern of the government (though I’m having a hard time finding the scoop on this recent pronouncement using the slow and censored internet here in Chongqing). Xu used his speech as an opportunity to suggest a rather forward-looking role that social work may play in further developing aspects of society which are essential for civil society (gongmin shehui 公民社会), and democratic rights (minzhu 民主)—yes, these were his words.

I don’t know how many social workers in China conceive of themselves as political reformers. I suspect most are absorbed and often mired in the complex world of negotiating government bureaucracies to provide client services with limited resources. But there was something convincing to me about Xu’s vision for building civil society, perhaps because I discerned in his words a thinly veiled political critique. At one point he even said, “Unfortunately there are still some government ministers who don’t understand (the importance of social work).”

Xu’s chief argument, shared by other speakers, was that social work, if done well, facilitates the civic involvement of the communities being served. One of Xu’s critiques of social work, as currently practiced, is that it often fails to preserve the dignity of the recipients of social services. He gave an example of social workers and government officials publicly posting the names of recipients, a practice that seems likely do more to shame the disadvantaged into not requesting services than to encourage them to seek assistance. I suspect this might also be a feeble attempt by social workers and government officials to prove their legitimacy by advertising their successful work. Another speaker, Wang Sibin—Chair of Peking University’s Sociology Department and head of China’s Association of Social Work Education—also mentioned the need to preserve human dignity in social services in his opening speech.

There was a link for both Xu and Wang between the concepts of human dignity and civil society: a link I find tremendously hopeful. Although both speakers were concerned with those who are not benefiting from development, Xu pushed the issue of civil society and democracy most directly. What Xu was arguing, at root, was that social work has the capacity, indeed the mission, to develop the “foundations for democracy” and “the rule of law.” He gave two examples from Shanghai: social work departments have worked with the municipal government to establish law firms at the district level where citizens might better make claims for their economic and employment rights via a legal process (as opposed to endless petitions or dangerous protests); social workers have mediated between community members and the government in the case of disputes and have defused tensions by helping build community organizations with elected leaders that meet the needs of communities better than the government.

Xu presented an interesting concept of the relationship between government and society. He advocates a “social management” model of “small government, big society” (xiao zhengfu, da shehui 小政府大社会), but this isn’t the American model of a thousand points of light funded exclusively by philanthropists and charities. He wants the government to step up and pay for an expansion of social services and training programs for social workers (housed in universities), essentially arguing for more public money to invest in civil society while simultaneously relaxing governmental controls (he also argues that private enterprise needs to put more into social services—via taxes, or via philanthropy?).

Xu held Shanghai up as an example of effective social management (though he doesn’t think Shanghai is quite there yet). The municipal government apparently pays for social services out of its own budget rather than subsidizing services through regressive public lotteries (which is how these services are paid for in Chongqing and Shenzhen). In addition to this funding, Shanghai also encourages the creation of nonprofits and NGOs, giving 200,000 yuan over 3 years to help incubate newly formed social work NGOS. There are other initiatives throughout the nation. Shenzhen helps incubate nonprofits by decreasing taxes and by providing organizations with subsidies for office space. According to a representative from Chongqing’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, the government has created a campaign to churn out 10,000 new social workers a year. Shenzhen alone is working towards meeting this challenge by hiring 800 new social workers this year and aiming to increase that number to 1200 by next year.

All this to say, there was a reason these social workers were conferencing together. Their gathering was timely, and by my observations, productive. They were here to share concrete ideas with international colleagues on how to better develop the profession of social work, how to better train personnel, and how to provide better interventions in local communities. They may not consider themselves revolutionaries, but I’m convinced social reform is taking place.

I saw some very encouraging panels, which included a presentation on the healing, teaching and research roles of conducting life narratives and “reminiscence therapy” in elder communities; models of service learning as tools for developing civic engagement in both social work students and community members; the role of social work in providing sexual health education (which was previously provided by family planning cadres, and now isn’t really provided at all, even in the face of rising rates of HIV and other STDs); and the benefits of teams of caregivers of high-need autism patients creating “biographical timelines” of their patients to increase caregiver empathy and produce more effective strategies of intervention.

I find it curious that the Chinese think so highly of the American model of social work. I’ve wondered why they haven’t looked to the Netherlands or other European models as seriously in their quest for strategies of “social management.” So often all I see from the lives of people I meet or read about in the newspaper are the failures of American social services and the suffering and hopelessness of under-resourced communities. I appreciated this glimpse into an ideal— a shared vision of social reform put forth by international scholars and practitioners in a profession that values empathy and that is committed to righting social injustices and bringing support to the underprivileged. I appreciated the exchange of tangible ideas and the sharing of results, confirmed in research, by creative and hopeful individuals.

Most of all, I think I appreciated Professor Xu’s acknowledgement that we’re “living beyond capitalism and beyond socialism” and that we need to take seriously the social problems that have emerged with rapid development. I appreciate his public conviction that whatever solutions we come up with must privilege the preservation of human dignity and the fostering of civil society. I’m still sitting on the edge of my seat: what will the future of social work look like as it develops, globally, with Chinese characteristics?


  1. I'm wondering: did the "harmonious society" (héxié shèhui 和谐社会) come up at all? It would seem a natural way to tie in social work with known, well-publicized government priorities. If the social work community is missing this boat, then it seems a shame...

  2. I only heard "harmonious society" come up a couple of times, spoken by government ministers...surprise surprise. I don't think the social work community is "missing this boat." I'm sure they use "harmonious society" aplenty when speaking to government officials about getting money. The phrase wasn't necessary for this particular crowd, which seemed to be pushing the envelope a bit beyond the well-publicized government priorities.