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Social Policy and Social Work in Contemporary China: Interview with Xu Yongxiang

From left to right: Dr Geoff Raby, Australian Ambassador to China, Professor Xu Yongxiang and myself at the Chinese Studies Roundtable held in the Australian Pavillion during Shanghai Expo. I have written about the roundtable on ChinaWatch2050.

On the 28th October 2010 I went to East China University of Science and Technology (华东理科大学). I have been making regular visits to ECUST for many years primarily to visit Professor Xu Yongxiang (徐永祥). Prof Xu (pronounced something like ‘sue’) is the Dean of the School of Social and Public Management. In addition to this ‘day job’ he also wears many hats a few of which include: Director of the Applied Sociology Institution, Board Member of the Sociology Association of China, Vice Chairman of the Social Work Education Association of China, Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Social Worker Association, and President of Shanghai Ziqiang Social Service. He has also recently been appointed to head up the Shenzhen NPO (non-profit) Research Institute.

Prof Xu first came to my attention whilst I was conducting background research on the emergence of ‘social work’ (社会工作) in contemporary China. I was aware that the notion of ‘social work’ and the profession of the ‘social workers’ was a relatively new phenomenon in the People’s Republic. During the Maoist period (1949 – 1976) and the first part of the reform period (1976 – 1989) there was no such thing as ‘social work’ or any profession called ‘social worker’. Instead, in urban locations social problems were dealt with through the system of the ‘work unit’ (单位). A ‘work unit’ is/was an almost self-governing institution which provided cradle to grave support for its members. A ‘work unit’ could be a factory, a university, a government department and so on. In rural areas social issues were dealt with through the various agencies of the state such as the ‘woman’s federation’, and/or the family planning authorities. The general strategy was to periodically address a problem through the implementation of ‘mass campaigns’. Nobody was really trained in the art of social work or psychology (such as counselling). People relied on age old skills of negotiation and common sense (not always the best approach!). The system overall was very powerful, that is, it could exert a great deal of authority over individuals and families (especially in urban areas where it controlled the ‘purse strings’ but also in rural areas where the Maoist notion of ‘politics in command’ and ‘class struggle’ could be used as tools of coercion and violence).

An anti-drug campaign in full swing on the streets of Shanghai in 2004. The 'mass campaign' style of addressing social issues is still being used in China.

However, during the reform period, and especially since the 1990s Chinese society has undergone dramatic social change. The commune system was disbanded in the early 1980s and household farming was reestablished. In urban areas the ‘work unit’ model also began to undergo significant reform. Some ‘work units’ were completely disbanded. Others slowly reduced the kinds of services offered to work unit members. Overall society became much more dynamic with a great flow of labour and capital, not to mention ideas and lifestyles. During this period many new (at least in the sense of not having been seen in the People’s Republic since the 1950s) social problems emerged (such as drug addiction, prostitution, and gambling). Other social issues that were once taboo now came to greater public attention as the media began to develop (such as homosexuality, domestic violence, and mental health). In addition epidemics such as HIV AIDS also appeared thus further contributing to the increasing complexity of social issues in China.

It became very clear to social policy officials and scholars that the old system of dealing with social problems was no longer functioning effectively. Indeed the ‘old system’ was itself being actively dismantled and yet nothing was yet being developed to take its place. The authorities were/are of course implementing new forms of social welfare and social insurance, but often the policy implementation was slow and haphazard and not able to keep up with the pace of change. On another front some of the gains of the Maoist period in terms of social policy, such as in basic public health, were being eroded as neoliberal market-driven policies were implemented in the 1980s.

Say no to drugs! Do more baijiu! (ChinaWatch2050 encourages the responsible consumption of alchohol).

It is into this context of rapid social change, the emergence of many pressing social issues and the need to find a new social policy model, that social work and the social worker made an appearance. Given my interest in government and governmental reform I saw the emergence of social work as an excellent case study in the various ways in which Chinese authorities are engaging in social reform. The figure of the ‘social worker’ also represented a new profession (a new form of ‘expertise’ for those interested in Foucauldian notions of ‘governmentality’), one which has its origins in a judeao-christian context (and that in itself is quite significant, but I won’t go into detail here) and therefore requires a process of ‘indigenisation’ (本土化).

So I began to gather material on social work in China and track down some of the key scholars working in this field. Prof Xu’s name was often mentioned and so I naturally made my way to his office on the campus of ECUST, just a stone’s throw away from Shanghai South Railway Station (上海南站). Prof Xu is extremely affable and shared a great deal of insight and information with me as well as introducing me to many of his colleagues at ECUST and elsewhere. He also led a delegation to visit me in Perth at The University of Western Australia where I arranged a special symposium comparing social policy in China and Australia as well as some field trips to learn about local government in the Australian context.

UWA Arts Faculty visit to ECUST in 2004. Professor Anne Pauwels (second from left), Dean of Arts, and Professor Xu Yongxiang (second from right), Dean of Social Policy and Social Administration. Maria in the middle! And two fine ECUST colleagues left and right.

Prof Xu research interests are quite broad and include social work, social policy, social organization and community development (shequ jianshe, 社区建设). He has published more than seventy articles and over ten books. Currently, Professor Xu is in charge of a very large research project funded by the National Social Science Fund of China and several research programs commissioned by the Shanghai Municipal Government (for whom he is a top level advisor).

My research on social work is on the back burner for the time being as I currently pursue other projects (notably cultural heritage, ‘donkey friends’, tourism and the Ancient Tea Horse Road!). But I still try to see Prof Xu when I can (tracking him down is not always easy as his feet seem to barely touch the ground!), and I’m pleased now to present my interview. The interview provides a brief overview of social policy and the emergence of social work in contemporary China. It discusses some of the challenges facing social work and some of the recent successes. It also explores the role the Wenchuan Earthquake as a critical moment in demonstrating the utility of social work practice. I did the translation into English myself and admit it needs some more work, but there is too much on my plate at the moment and the current draft will have to suffice.

The Interview

GS = Gary Sigley

XYX = Xu Yongxiang

GS: Professor Xu, thanks very much for agreeing to the interview. I would like to talk to you today about trends and issues in social policy in contemporary China, and in particular the background and history of social work in China in recent decades. I know that you have a strong interest and much practical experience in the dissemination of social work in China. Let’s start with an introduction to the background and history of social policy in China.

XYX: Social policy in contemporary China, especially that which straddles the two centuries, has been characterised by a problematic entanglement with neoliberalism. Over the course of the last several years from the centre to the grass-roots, from the academy to the social field of the non-government and service-orientated organisations, all have gradually come to realise the negative influence of neoliberalist influenced policy in China.

GS: When and how did neoliberalism enter China and how much influence has it had as an ideology on social policy?

Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen on the 1992 'Southern Tour'. Deng came out of retirement and went on an inspection of the various 'Special Economic Zones' in order to bolster the forces of the reformists. The year '1992' should be remembered as the birth of 'state capitalism' in China.

XYX: Strictly speaking we can say that neoliberalism first entered China and began to have some influence in the 1980s [the first decade of the policy of ‘reform and openness’]. A general attitude of ‘learn from the West’ and ‘open the doors to the outside world’ prevailed. Neoliberalism’s first foothold was at this time through the window of economic theory and policy. But in terms of neoliberalism’s domination of discourse [huayuquan 话语权] it wasn’t until after Deng Xiaoping’s historic ‘southern inspection’ [nanxun 南巡] [in 1992] that the doors were flung wide open and the government advocated the adoption of a market economy. Originally neoliberalism was a school of thought restricted to economic theory. In the field of economics it has some credibility insofar as it relates to expanding the economy through greater efficiencies and stimulating the development of enterprises and firms. The unfortunate thing is that neoliberalism not only played a prominent role in the economic field, but that its influence also extended to the field of social policy. For example, education [jiaoyu 教育], health [yiliao 医疗], hygiene [weisheng 卫生] and public service [gonggong fuwu 公共服务] all felt the effects of the influence of neoliberalism. This meant, for instance, the commercialisation [chanyehua 产业化] of education, health and so on. The responsibility that should have been carried out by the state and society was passed onto the mechanisms of the market with profit and money as the guiding factors. Then from this point forward many problems began to emerge, such as in public housing which has now become a serious problem due to the unaffordability of housing for the average family. Housing has both social and economic dimensions, but under the influence of neoliberalism all social policy emphasised was the economic. So neoliberalism, functioning as it does, has created vast wealth but has also created vast disparities between rich and poor. In a well functioning system the social can work to correct the imbalances produced by the economic, but in China over the last two decades the social policy field unfortunately did not have this desirable effect due to the influence of neoliberalism. So we have now got to the point where social policy must intervene to correct and readjust the imbalances and bring some order back over the economic. That’s just a brief background.

GS: Just to clarify, did the notion of ‘social policy’ exist conceptually before 1978? What was the main feature of social policy during the era of the socialist planned economy?

Prof Xu takes the mike.

XYX: Of course there was policy related to the social dimensions of life. But in the days of the socialist planned economy there was no real conceptual division between the social and economic, for example. The main feature of social policy at this time was its coming under the strong centralisation of political and economic power. Housing, for instance, in urban areas was allocated by the work-unit [danwei 单位], so social benefits were tied closely to political and economic power and could be used to control communities. Rural areas had some social policy but the level of conceptualisation and implementation was very limited, maybe with the exception of the ‘barefoot doctors’. Overall social policy in those times, especially when compared to the present, was low in efficiency and conceptualisation.

GS: Before the period of ‘reform and openness’ there was no such thing as ‘social work’ in the People’s Republic of China. But since the 1980s it has gradually found its way into the academy and the community, especially since 1997 when the presence of social work really began to take off in places like Shanghai. Can we now talk about the growth and development of social work in China?

XYX: In fact social work, as we understand it as a modern profession and field of inquiry, was first introduced to China in 1917. In Shanghai there were a number socially active scholars promoting social work and training social workers for professional life. In Bejing the Tongren Hospital had a social work section devoted to health services. This was all taking place in the 1920s and 1930s. There was even some element of social work in the New Life Movement of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government. But there was no systematic implementation of social policy or social work in the modern sense. In fact social work did not make a reappearance until 1988 when the Ministry of Education granted approval for a number of Chinese universities to begin teaching social work. Peking University and Jilin University were amongst the first to begin to teach undergraduates subjects on social work, but we need to note that social work was not recognised as a profession until very recently. Now the number of institutes of higher education in China which teach social work at the undergraduate level number more than two hundred with most of the expansion taking place over the last decade [coinciding with the mass expansion of higher education in China]. There are also 58 institutions teaching social worked at the postgraduate level [masters and doctorate]. So you can see it has taken a very long time in the education sector to make progress, but certainly progress has been made. By contrast the practice of social work within society has not been as successful although Shanghai has made some progress. In the 1990s in Pudong [a district] the Shanghai government began to support the implementation of some social work policies and practices. Professional social workers were appointed to work in schools, communities, hospitals and so on. This has since been expanded to all parts of Shanghai and to also include the deployment of professional social workers in the legal system, in the fields of drug abuse, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency and so on. Social work has also begun to find its way to other Chinese cities and some rural areas but Shanghai is definitely at the forefront with approximately 1,700 professional and certified social workers employed throughout different institutions.

GS: When did social work gain official recognition from the authorities as a profession [职业]?

XYX: The act of gaining official recognition as a profession was a process. In Shanghai it was granted in 2003 by the Shanghai Municipal Government. Persons aspiring to be social workers must pass a test and register with the appropriate authorities. In 2005 the Ministry of Labour [劳动部] recognised social work as a profession, and was soon followed in 2007 by the Ministry of Personnel and Ministry of Civil Affairs. Social workers were now on par with other professions such as engineers, scientists, lawyers and so forth as a ‘professional technical position’ [zhuanye jishu renyuan 专业技术人员]. There are a total of 32 recognised professions. Last year the Central Government reorganised the categories into six general divisions of which social work has a whole division to itself. So you can see now that at least from the point of few of social policy and social development that social work has now clearly come to the forefront and is validated as an important part of the social policy framework. Premier Wen Jiabao and other government and party leaders made important speeches in recognition of social work and its new role in the social policy area. A target of training two million social workers by 2015 and three million by 2020 was announced. Our university can only expect to train ten thousand social work graduates by 2015 so even with a hundred years we would not even make the 2015 target. So the idea is to train those persons working in the community, in relevant government departments or non-government organisations, who are doing the work of ‘social work’ but do not yet have any formal training or certification. So in this way with the combined efforts of institutions training undergraduates and training in the community we should be able to meet the 2020 target.

GS: So this is an indication that the central authorities have come to recognise the utility of professions such as social work in the context of a rapidly changing China?

XYX: Absolutely. As Premier Wen Jiabao himself stated, social work is valuable insofar as it can help to alleviate the social tensions and pressures on many members of the community, promote ‘harmonious society’ and raise the level and improve the effectiveness of social welfare.

GS: It’s good to see recognition and support from the very top. But what about at the bottom, at the grass-roots? Do local officials understand and appreciate social work?

XYX: As with many new things in China they generally take hold first in the large cities along the eastern seaboard. So now in many cities like Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, and so forth, social work is well accepted and understood by local officials and communities. But the further you go inland towards western China the more challenges social work faces. Many places in western China are still very poor and do not themselves have the resources or know-how to get things going. And of course if local departments and officials are unaware of the benefits and nature of social work it will take just that bit longer to get things going because the first thing that needs to be done is to convince the local officials.

GS: To approach the question a bit more broadly, what are the major challenges and obstacles face the further develop of social work in China?

XYX: There are few challenges. Firstly, social work has come up against some obstacles that exist with the current system [tizhi nei 体制内] in which government is still the dominant player in the social policy field as has been the case for many decades. In this context it is difficult to make changes that create room for ‘non-government’ players such as the many social workers who work in non-profit and non-government organisations. So the advancement of social work really has to work hand-in-hand with the development of the nongovernment sector [minjiande 民间的]. And it is actually crucial to deploy most of the social workers to organisations outside the system [tizhi wai 体制外] for we have found that those who end up in government departments end up doing mostly administrative work and cannot carry out their professional practice. So this is probably the biggest obstacle – the legacy of the state dominated social system.

The second issue concerns the lack of adequate funding for social work and social work related programmes. The system of allocating public fund [gonggong caizheng公共财政] is far from perfect in China. How to more effectively target public spending in the social field has not yet become well clarified as a significant problem in the minds of many leaders and levels of government. So in order to develop social work you need to allocate specific funds but unfortunately many local governments have not yet recognised the value of doing so.

GS: The last time we met was just after the tragic Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan. You were telling me how your university was involved in sending counselling staff and social workers to the disaster zone. Can you tell us a bit out what you did and its significance for the development of social work?

A Shanghai Social Work Station at the site of the Wenchuan Earthquake.

XYX: In the wake of the disaster we recognised an opportunity for our team to provide valuable assistance for the disaster victims. After consulting with the relevant authorities we sent a social work service team [shehui gongzuo fuwutuan 社会工作服务团]  to Dujiangyan (都江堰). The team also included professionals from Hong Kong. Altogether we sent twelve teams operating on a rotational basis. Each team consisted of at least ten persons and worked on site for three to four weeks. When the time had come to end the project the local government and people didn’t want us to leave which was quite a turnaround because when we first arrived they had no idea what ‘social work’ was and what we were offering them. They thought ‘you should be giving us money and necessities, what is this thing ‘social work’? But of course they couldn’t refuse us as we came all the way from Shanghai, so they made us welcome but there was a bit of uncertainty as to how the relationship would develop. But after several months of hard work the local government and people completely changed their attitude towards us.

GS: What were the main services and support you were providing?

XYX: We helped the local government and community rebuild the community by rehabilitating social services for the aged, for women, for children and so on. The initial issue for the community was the lack of hope and vision for the future. There was a real sense of hopelessness and despair. Many people had lost their homes and loved ones and where living with strangers in temporary shelter. So our first goal was to help build a sense of community and get the ‘strangers’ to know and support each other.  We used a lot of well developed strategies and programmes to achieve this. The other problem was the sour relations between the government and the people. Even though the government had made great efforts to accommodate everyone there were still a lot of problems with inadequate shelter, over crowding, leaking shelters, and so on. The people blamed all the problems on the government. The government on the other hand had its hands full and was not so competent at explaining the situation. Once we understood the nature of the situation we worked towards repairing relations between the government and the people and were quite successful in doing so.

When the first two teams left the locals were very upset and cried, so after that when the other teams left we didn’t tell them as we didn’t want them to get further upset. But it was impossible not for them to find out and so each time the teams left right up to the end we got a royal send-off full of tears and gratitude.

The other interesting thing worthy of noting is that psychological counsellors did not get a very good reception in the disaster zones. Some locals even put up signs on their doors stating ‘psychological counsellors do not enter’. Social workers by contrast, after the initial apprehension, were very welcome. This came as a surprise to all of us in the field. After a bit of reflection I have come to the conclusion that the rejection of psychological counsellors has something to do with the nature of its operation. In most cases it is a ‘one to one’ exchange between counsellor and victim. But the problem from the viewpoint of the victim was not confined to them per se it was a problem of the destruction of their social networks. Psychological counselling is not very effective in tackling the social dimensions of what the victims are confronting, whereas social work specifically seeks to do just that [that is, address the social issues].

As far as the development of social work is concerned our participation in the social reconstruction of the disaster zone was very significant. And I might add here that we were not the only social work service teams on the ground, there were others from Guangdong, Beijing and so on, but ours was probably the largest and most systematically organised. Our work allowed us to demonstrate the effectiveness of social work to communities and governments that had never ever seen a social worker before and didn’t know what ‘social work’ was. The media also did a lot of reporting about our work including a special report in the in-flight magazine of China Eastern Airlines. Leaders from the centre and provincial levels also came to inspect our work and we were able to demonstrate and explain what we were doing. It also demonstrated that social work could ‘become Chinese’, that is, it could work in China, it wasn’t something just imported from abroad.

GS: In relation to what you just said about the differences between psychological counselling and social work do you think that after twenty or so years of social work practice in China that social work has to some extent been indigenised [bentuhua 本土化]?

XYX: The development of social work in China has from the very start been a matter of finding out what works in China and how it can be consolidated and improved. In the beginning we concentrated on learning about world’s best practice in this area, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan where social work is already well established, but later from other places such as the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States and Australia. We needed to understand the systems of certification, of professionalisation, training, pedagogy, social practice and so on. Then we had to think about how to reach these international standards within China based on our own social and governmental system.

During this process it did become obvious to me that some of the systems and strategies used in the Western context could not apply to China. Let me cite an example. According to the ethical principles of Western social work it is not permitted for any form of material exchange to take place between the social worker and the client. But in China, and by extension maybe in Korea and Japan as well, if you want to develop a relationship of trust with the client you cannot refuse gifts as the giving of gifts is an integral part of development emotional sentiment [renqing 人情] between people. There was one particular case in which the social worker went to visit the client and on the first occasion the client would let the social worker through the door. The second time the social worker went he was allowed in but only given a cup of boiled water. On the third occasion progress was being made and the social worker was given a cup of tea. And finally on the fourth occasion the client insisted on treating the social work to dinner. According to Western ethical principles this is unacceptable as the social worker should not take any money or gifts from the client. The social worker was also aware of this ethical dilemma but decided to accept the invitation. I think he did the right thing. This particular client was afflicted with drug addiction and had wasted all the family’s income on drugs. The house was filthy. Many drug addicts also have communicable diseases. In other words their social status is very low, people in the neighbourhood, family, and society look down upon them and keep their distance. The drug addicts sense of self esteem is thus very low. When the social worker accepted the invitation the client found such a sense of gratitude and self-respect that the social worker was able to build up trust with the client and attempt to help him overcome his problems.