The Historical Background of China Project

The origin of the China Project can be traced back to 1997, when Professor Ka Tat Tsang was invited to attend the National Conference of the Chinese Association of Social Work Education. In the years that followed, the Faculty of Social Work collaborated with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, mainly through the China College of Civil Affairs. In this early phase of the China Project, our focus was on the promotion of social work both as a profession and a discipline, and the development of social work education in China. This area of study and practice was just getting started again in China, after a long period of inactivity from the 1950s to the early 1980s.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, China went through significant changes in its economy, social structure, culture, and social life. The creation of a market economy within a socialist political order governed by the single Chinese Communist Party led to transformations that had not been seen historically. With regard to social work and social service, the key themes of transformation include (1) the fading out of the danwei, the state-run employment unit which had provided for practically all the employees' social service needs before the Open-Reform Policy was introduced; (2) the transferring of social service functions previously held by the state to communities, who typically do not have adequate resources to cope with the transition; and (3) the emergence of a market economy and the new social value of self-care and self-sufficiency.

It has to be noted that during the first 30 years of Communist rule, social problems requiring professional social work intervention were considered a unique feature of capitalist social order. The supposed superiority of the socialist order was considered to have rendered social work unnecessary. The emergence of the wide variety of social issues accompanying the new economic transformation was pretty striking and scary for the Chinese authorities. These issues include massive lay-offs due to the inefficiency of state-owned enterprises, massive numbers of migrants moving from the rural areas to the cities, extreme poverty associated with unthinkable discrepancies between the rich and the poor, crime, public health concern, environmental challenges, and so on.

Systems within the Communist government have traditionally been assigned to deal with these issues. For example, the Ministry of Labor is supposed to take care of the labor market, compensation packages, and social security. The Ministry of Civil Affairs is charged with a wide variety of social service functions including disaster relief, rehabilitative services for the physically challenges, veterans service, community development, and family mediation. The All China Women's Federation is responsible for focusing on women's issues. The Communist Youth League works with young people in the population. In the late 80s and the early 90s, a growing awareness was shared among people in different government bodies that their traditional ways of working with social problems are not likely to be adequate. Social Work was "discovered" as a possible solution for countries experiencing many challenges.

The introduction of Social Work to China has gone through a rapid process, which is probably unprecedented. In 1997, there were less than two dozen university or college programs in social work, and they were typically not well-designed or staffed. In 2007, the country boasted having over 200 social work programs, an ten-fold increase within a decade. However, the development of social work, both as a practice profession and as an academic discipline, has suffered from a few limitations. Since social work is new to the country, the pioneers who championed the cause of social work are typically not social workers themselves. Enthusiastic supporters of social work in the country include senior government officials, and academics from other disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, anthropology, history, statistics and English. These leaders of Chinese social work have doubtlessly contributed significantly to the rapid establishment of discipline. They have nonetheless inadvertently fostered a discipline that is more based on theories and principles of practice rather than solid direct practice in the field. To date, the majority of social work programs do not have a well-designed and integrated practicum training component. This problem is tied to two other major issues, one being the lack of experienced practitioners of social work who can serve as instructors and supervisors. The other issue is the lack of coordination between the schools of social work and the major government employers that led to the wastage of large proportions of social work graduates. This graduates had major difficulties in finding social work jobs upon completion of their studies. Fortunately, this situation may change for the better, as the position presented by leaders of the Chinese Central Government in late 2006 states that a strong team of professional social workers is to be built.

The History and Development of China Project (PowerPoint file)

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