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Development of social work education in China: Background, current status, and prospects.

SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION in China dates back to the 1920s; however, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the government suspended social work education in China for almost 36 years. During this time, the highest leadership in China assumed that no social problems would exist within a socialist system, and the country followed the Soviet Union's lead in abandoning social work education. In the late 1980s, market-based economic reforms began to reveal critical social problems associated with the vast number of vulnerable citizens, and these threatened China's social order and cohesion. As a result, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the State Council revived social work education in China (for a good review of the history, see Law & Gu, 2008). Further awakened by a series of significant events related to China's at-risk populations since the turn of the 21st century and spurred on by the devastating Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, universities and colleges have rapidly begun developing and implementing new social work education programs across the country.

At present, nearly 500,000 people in the civil administration system in China are engaged in social work practices and service delivery. The overwhelming majority, however, have not received any social work professional training. In addition, millions of personnel work in social service delivery systems, such as social security, health, education, the Communist Youth Union, the Women's Federation, nonprofit foundations, organizations for people with disabilities, criminal justice, and community services, but again, the vast majority of them have never received any formal social work training. These professional workers possess rich field experiences that we cannot overlook, yet they are in desperate need of formal social work education.

Before moving on, we must emphasize the distinction between the need for and the demand for social work educational development in contemporary China. China's central government recognizes the country's great need for social workers and is thus creating a supply of social workers to address this need. Government policies to date have concentrated on the need for but have not catalyzed the demand for professional social workers. Because the profession disappeared from the country for almost 40 years, the public is generally not aware of social work as a profession. No public education programs or policies have been put in place to encourage local governments and third-sector organizations to hire social workers.

In this paper, we examine the development of social work education in China, the forces that drive the restoration and rebuilding of social work education, its present state, and the challenges of establishing infrastructure for social work education in a short time frame. We also present future prospects and directions for China's social work education in the coming years.

The Developmental Stages of Social Work Education in China

Social work education in China was initiated during the 1920s when social scientists in the country came into contact with an influx of Western scholarship and religious groups together with Chinese scholars who once studied in Europe and America under the Chinese Scholar Initiative. Yanjing University established the first department of sociology in 1922, aiming to train social service professionals. Later, in 1925, the department changed its name to the Department of Sociology and Social Services. Between 1925 and 1949, eight other universities (Hujiang University, Soochow University, Zhejiang University, Jinling University, Jinling Female Institute, Fudan University, Jinan University, and Tsinghua University) launched specialty courses related to social service and social work (Yuan, 1997). Between 1920 and 1949, the social work profession was influenced by scholars trained in Western society; thus, much of the philosophy, principles, and practices underpinning social work in China during that time stemmed from Western training and development, which emphasized human rights and social services. During this time, the social work profession was mainly focusing on issues related to farmers in the countryside and (the growing number of) laborers in the cities. By 1949, social work had slowly but steadily become a recognized profession among the public and in academia. Soon after the new Chinese government was established in 1949, however, China went through a series of reforms targeted at the national higher education system and particular disciplines. Specialties such as sociology, demography, and social work were abandoned, and social work education in China was suspended for more than 30 years. From 1949 until the early 1980s, all social issues were directly handled by the central government through the Civil Affairs division, though over time this division was unable to handle all the social issues that China faced. The main focus of the Civil Affairs was not on the basic human rights of the vulnerable population nor on social service delivery but rather on emphasizing the equal distribution of goods and services within the socialist society (Y. Li, 2010; S. Wang, 1995).

Social work education was not revived in China until the 1978 economic reform (sometimes called the Open Door Policy), which moved society from a controlled, planned economy to an increasingly free market economy during the 1980s. Many social issues accompanied the rapid transformation of the economic market such as labor disputes and injuries, misplaced laborers, migration from rural to urban areas, and abandoned children, all of which have threatened the political, economic, and social stability of the country and call for intervention by social work professionals. Watching with alarm as these issues have emerged, coupled with several large-scale natural disasters, China's highest leadership--the Central Committee of the CCP, the State Council, and the central government--has turned to the social work profession as a means to provide social control through social service delivery, with the hope of creating a harmonious society.

In contrast to this rapid redevelopment in China lead by the central government, the development of social work in Western countries had its roots in social revolution, with leadership coming from grassroots organizations (Shi, 2004). For example, the first social work program in the United States was established in 1898 with a summer training program for volunteers of the Charity Organization Society, a nonprofit organization. Not until 1940 did the program officially become a graduate program associated with Columbia University. In China, in comparison, the central government has pushed forward the rapid and unparalleled development of social work education infrastructure. Such strong and powerful support from the central government and the CCP is almost unprecedented. According to former national Vice President Zeng Qinghong, since the Open Door policy was instituted, only the field of economics has received such strong and vocal support from the government and the CCP. In addition, on September 2, 2008, inspecting the social work center of the East-China Science and Technology University set up in the Sichuan earthquake disaster area, the Premier Wen Jiabao said at the end of his tour: "In my opinion, social work is really important to construct the harmonious society." Throughout this period of reemergence, social work education in China has gone through many definitions and transformations, but it has always been underscored by the Western social work model that emphasizes the values of human rights, social justice, and individual and family well-being.

In this paper, we divide the development process into two stages: (1) restoring and rebuilding from 1987 to 1998 and (2) swift development (1999 to present).

Restoration and Rebuilding (1987-1998)

In 1987, the State Educational Committee authorized Peking University and other universities to establish social work programs. The next year, the Department of Sociology at Peking University officially incorporated the social work profession into the department and began recruiting undergraduate social work students in 1989. Subsequently, Renmin University of China, Jilin University, Xiamen University, and Shanghai University also launched either a social work program or curriculum. In 1993, China Youth University for Political Sciences established the very first department of social work in China. April 1994 marked another milestone for social work education with the establishment of the China Social Work Education Association (CSWEA), which has played an important role in compiling a consistent curricula, based on curricula taught in Western societies (e.g., United States), for social work programs across the nation, and has also organized workshops, conferences, and the like to provide networking opportunities for social work professionals.

By the end of 1999, China had launched 27 social work undergraduate programs, with many additional colleges or universities offering either a social work curriculum or a social work specialty for students in vocational programs (S. Wang, 2004a).

Swift Development (Since 1999)

In 1998 with the announcement of the "Undergraduate Specialties for Universities and Colleges," the Ministry of Education officially allowed social work programs to switch from being a "quota-controlled" to a "non-quota-controlled" discipline. Since then, universities and colleges across the nation have been free to establish social work programs in accordance with social need. This change has greatly expanded the scale of higher education, with the recruitment of large numbers of students each year. According to CSWEA, since 2000, on average, the number of institutions recruiting social work undergraduate students has been growing at a pace of 20 to 30 per year, and each year China's social work programs have seen record-breaking numbers of students. More importantly, the CCP, at the beginning of the new century, put forward the goal of constructing a harmonious socialist society to improve the citizens' well-being. With the release of the National Medium and Long-Term Talent Development Outline (2010-2020) on June 6, 2010, the Chinese government identified the Social Work Talent Troop as a priority for cultivating much-needed professionals. Specifically, the outline calls for a total of 2 million trained social workers by 2015, increasing to 3 million by 2020. The government also indicated that the quality of social work education along with resources and infrastructure will be top priorities of the central government in the coming years. This mission and policy direction have spurred the construction of many facets of infrastructure, including community organizations, to address the needs of the citizens, which in turn marks a meaningful turning point in the rise of social work education.

The Current State of Social Work Education in China

According to the Ministry of Education, China established 211 social work undergraduate programs between 2000 and 2007, with student enrollment in such programs growing from about 1,000 in the early 1990s to about 10,000 students recruited and 10,000 graduated every year by the end of 2007 (Chang, 2010). In addition to university and college degrees, approximately 153 colleges or universities also provide associate or vocational degrees to students specializing in the social work profession; plus another 73 secondary vocational schools offer social work vocational degrees (Organization Department of the Communist Party of China of Central Committee, 2007). In 2010, the Ministry of Education (2010) estimated that across the nation about 253 undergraduate programs were offering a social work specialty.

At the beginning of the new century, many universities had independently established social work graduate programs under their departments of sociology. Renmin University of China was the first to set up a graduate social work program, offering a Master of Science degree beginning in 2004. Since then, Peking University and dozens of other universities have followed suit. Additionally, Renmin University of China and 10 other universities also provide social work doctoral programs. Master of Social Work (MSW), the specialized graduate degree, was established for the first time in Renmin University in 2009 to officially recruit graduate students starting in 2010. Also in 2009, 33 other universities and colleges began recruiting MSW students. In August 2010, another 25 universities and colleges accepted a second batch of MSW students, with the official launch set for 2011.

Driving Factors

Since the introduction of market-based economic reforms in 1978, four factors have been the primary drivers behind the quick reconstruction and development of social work education in China. First, as China has made rapid social and economic transitions, urgent needs of the most vulnerable populations have become apparent. Second, a call for professionalism in the civil service since the 1980s has spurred the development of education and training for China's social workers. Third, recent reforms to China's higher education system aimed at increasing the number of students have led to the need for more education programs for professionals, such as social workers. Finally, the shift in China's governance paradigm from "versatile government" to "small government, big society" (X. Li, 2007) has accelerated the development of the civil social service, indirectly promoting social work education.

Growing needs among vulnerable populations. During the highly controlled, centrally planned economic period (1949-1978), issues such as unemployment, poverty, aging, child poverty, working poor, disability, and homelessness were not acknowledged in China. Ever since the 1978 Open Door Policy, the magnitude and seriousness of these issues have rapidly increased, and they have gained more visibility.

Unique to China is the development of a set of social issues related to misplaced migrant laborers, also called peasant-workers, and their children. More than 200 million peasant-workers migrated from rural areas to urban labor markets between 2000 and 2010 (Y. Li, 2010; State Council Research Office, 2006). The myriad social issues related to the vulnerability of peasant-workers and their children primarily result from China's household registration system (hukou), which categorizes each individual or family as either an agricultural or nonagricultural household, resulting in societal disparities. Nonagricultural households tend to live in urban areas where the most resources and benefits are available to residents. The opposite is true for people with agricultural household registration living in rural areas. Although peasant-workers may work and live in urban areas, their agricultural household identification denies them the benefits and resources provided to urban residents. For example, China's health care and insurance system is structured to offer the best services to middle-and upper-class people living in urban areas. This structure creates a marked disparity between rural and urban areas, making it difficult for peasant-workers to receive care at an affordable price when they need it. This problem is further compounded by insufficient and inadequate labor protection legislation to handle the fast-growing number of workers who have suffered serious injuries at their workplace (H. Zheng, 2003). Despite recent reforms in the household registration system in various parts of China, this system is still widely applied across the nation, and therefore peasant-workers face a long list of problems, including low-wage jobs, long work hours, and unsafe working conditions.

Perhaps more troublesome than the plight of the peasant-workers are the inequities faced by their children. Because of the family's rural household identification, children who accompany their parents to urban areas cannot attend the same high-quality schools as children with an urban household registration. Alternatively, children who are left home with their grandparents when the parents migrate to an urban area for work suffer serious poverty problems together with their frail grandparents. The emerging "intergenerational poverty" in China, which includes a wave of children wandering the urban streets and millions of children living in extreme poverty with their grandparents in rural areas (Duan & Zhou, 2005; Tan, 2011; G. Zheng, 2006), promises social repercussions in the coming years. The latest poverty estimates in China show that with the poverty threshold of 1,196 yuan (approximately $180 [USD]) per person per year, the country has more than 40 million people living in poverty (Wen, 2009). Counting vulnerable peasant-workers and their children, the homeless, and the rural impoverished elderly, not to mention those affected by recent natural disasters (such as earthquakes and flooding that have hit the poorest regions of the country the hardest), scholars in China estimate that about 200 million people in China belong to one of these vulnerable groups (Li & Fang, 2010; H. Zheng, 2003).

These critical social issues raise serious concerns among Chinese leaders about social order and cohesion (Wen, 2009). Issues related to the unemployed and peasant-workers have led to numerous unfortunate incidents in large cities such as Guangdong, Kunming, and Shenzhen over the past 10 years. For example, the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen in 2010 witnessed 13 suicide attempts, and there have been kindergarten killings by migrant peasant-workers across the nation in recent years. These separate tragedies reflect the very real issues faced by millions of Chinese suffering economically (e.g., unemployed, low wage), socially (e.g., no schooling, no decent housing), and physically (e.g., no health insurance and health care) that have not been addressed by government policies and programs. Although these are standalone incidents, taken together, they raise the specter of large-scale social turmoil. Solving the immediate issues faced by vulnerable groups in China has thus become one of the top priorities on the government agenda.

Learning from Western experience that social work has traditionally been the profession to address social issues like these, the government in China has placed unprecedented responsibility on this profession in the hopes of restoring and rebuilding social order and cohesion.

The rise of professionalism in the civil service. As early as 1983, the Ministry of Civil Administration announced the goal of reconstructing China's civil administration education system; this policy has also played a leading role in resuming social work education in China (R. Wang, 2005). In September 1987 in Beijing, the Ministry of Civil Administration convened a conference centering on social work and invited sociologists and social work experts along with staff of the State Educational Committee in an effort to confirm the importance of social work as a professional discipline in China. The decision to hold the conference was based on the fact that approximately 453,000 employees in the civil administration engaged in social work responsibilities, translating into a workload of I worker to 1,000 clients. Significantly, most of the social workers lacked any systematic social work professional training and education (Lai, 2006). In 1988, the Department of Sociology at Peking University, in collaboration with the Ministry of Civil Administration, began recruiting undergraduate social work students for the first time.

Reforming the higher education system. In the late 1990s, corresponding to the fast transformation of the economic structure in China, the higher education system began shifting from an elite education paradigm to a mass education model to meet the need for an ever-expanding labor force. Since 1999, the recruitment of students into higher education has expanded continually--prior to that year, the number of students entering higher education programs per year across the nation barely reached one million; by 2010 that number had surpassed 6 million (Tencent Education, 2010; Q. Wang, 2009). The authority to recruit any fixed numbers of students for certain disciplines and professions had rested solely with the central government under the centrally controlled economic structure. With the transformation to a market economy, such authority has been gradually transferred to each local government and university, allowing local universities and colleges to establish professional schools to meet regional and local social and economic needs. Social work is perceived to be the profession to address the mounting social issues related to China's ever-expanding economic market and thus has received unprecedented attention from schools and universities across the nation (S. Wang, 2004a).

Changes in China's governance paradigm. A fourth and less direct factor in the rise of social work education in China was the shift in governance paradigm from "versatile government" to "small government, big society" (X. Li, 2007). Prior to the Open Door Policy, the central "versatile government" had the full responsibility of addressing all social and economic issues by providing services and programs to all citizens. With changes instituted since the 1980s, the central government has begun allocating authority to local governments. This reform has also brought about the need for a strong third sector--local community agencies, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit organizations--to take on at least some of the responsibility for delivering social services. As a result, these types of organizations are in dire need of trained social work professionals.

The Challenges Faced by China's Social Work Education

The development of social work education in China began much later than in other developed countries, which has presented both advantages and disadvantages. By starting late, China has had the opportunity to learn from other countries' mistakes and successes. China, however, is trying to develop the entire field of social work--both the profession and its required education programs--in a short 20 years, a feat that took other developed countries more than 50 years. For example, the first official social work graduate program in the United States was the Columbia University School of Social Work, offering the Master of Science degree after 52 years of development (1898-1940) and the first doctoral degree in 1952 after 64 years of development. No other country in the world has established hundreds of social work programs across the nation within such a short time span (S. Zhang, 2009).

Consequently, China, in just 20 years, is likely to experience the difficulties and dilemmas that other countries have faced over the course of half a century or more. In the following section, we discuss the challenges of establishing and developing social work education programs in China.

Quantity Versus Quality

The primary trend in social work education in China has thus far been to improve the country's social work infrastructure by increasing the number of programs and the number of students entering these programs each year. This trend has undoubtedly been responsible for the rapid restoration and rebuilding of social work education in China. Whereas this strategy makes sense in light of the increasing need for social work professionals, the quality of education that these students receive---in terms of the MSW curricula, the teaching qualifications, students' qualifications, and professional requirements--has not yet received the same level of attention (Y. Li, 2010). Even more concerning is the variation in the quality and capacity of the universities and colleges that have recently established their own social work programs. In addition to a serious lack of professional and knowledgeable faculty to teach the social work curriculum across the nation, some universities and colleges lack the basic resources--such as physical facilities, adequate textbooks, and teaching materials--needed to deliver quality postsecondary education.

Using a Western Model

When Chinese officials began the difficult task of reconstructing the country's social work infrastructure, they looked to lessons learned in other countries to establish a set of best practices. Government officials as well as leading scholars visited countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to compile their international general rules or best practices to guide the development of social work education in China. These best practices were used to establish guidelines for universities and colleges across the nation to follow when they first started a social work program. These guidelines center on the curriculum requirements for MSW programs, field placement requirements, social work ethics and values, and teaching qualifications currently in place in countries with well-established social work programs such as the United States and the United Kingdom. The U.S. experience was the primary point of reference for this development (Shi, 2004; Sun, Yan,& Zhen, 2007; S. Wang, 2004a). For example, the national curriculum is founded on clinical practice, with essential components being an introduction to case work and group work, social welfare policy, human behavior and social environment, and community organizing, among other topics. Students are also required to have a field internship during their undergraduate coursework. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics is introduced and discussed as part of the curriculum. At the same time, due to close geographic proximity, similarities in culture, and shared language, Hong Kong and Taiwan's experiences in developing, establishing, and delivering social work education have become another point of reference for social work education development in China. For example, scholars and social work practitioners from these areas have often been invited to provide workshops and courses on social work professional training not only to faculty members and students but also to community civil service workers. Social work development in Shenzhen and Shanghai is heavily dependent on social work professionals from Hong Kong providing supervision for students and interns. As a result, these two cities are considered the leaders in China's social work infrastructure due to the advanced supervision structure in their social work agencies and organizations. Many of these scholars and practitioners in Hong Kong were educated and trained under the U.K. education system, and many of the scholars and practitioners in Taiwan were educated and trained in the United States.

The ability to learn from other countries' successes and failures has certainly allowed China to rapidly develop its social work education programs, but reliance on Western models does present some challenges. Given the differences between countries, what works for one country may not necessarily be best for another country. China is discovering exactly this reality in terms of developing its own social work education, profession, and identity. Most, if not all, universities and colleges directly borrow the curriculum and professional ethics and values from Western countries and attempt to apply them to China's social work program without any revisions made to correspond with Chinese culture, values, and attitudes (Asia and Pacific Association for Social Work Education, 1996; Xiang, 2008). For example, the field of social work in Western societies emphasizes respecting clients' individual differences and privacy and the primacy of confidentiality (S. Wang, 2004b). With a culture of collectivism and the primacy of family, the unit of concern in China, however, is more the family than the individual. Thus, social workers attempting to address an individual's distress are likely to approach issues from the perspective of collectivism. They would treat the family as a unit rather than just the individual. This disparity between the realities of China and the Western model being taught has profound implications as to how a social work practitioner might approach an individual's issues (S. Wang, 2004b).

Rapid societal changes also affect how a person might react to a social worker's involvement and how a social worker might approach problems. An individual's issues cannot be divorced from the societal context in which he or she was raised. A person who grew up under the centrally controlled market economy during the 1968 Cultural Revolution in China will interpret personal experiences quite differently than a person who grew up in the 1990s, when China was transforming to a free-market economy. Thus, a social worker must have an extensive wealth of native knowledge to provide sound social services and programs to adequately and appropriately address the social issues faced by each of these people, who have different life experiences and who grew up in disparate societal and historical contexts.

Qualified Scholars and Faculty

With the swift development of social work education in China, demand has inevitably risen for social work educators who have not only an understanding of social work curricula used in other developed countries but also native experience and knowledge that is appropriate and applicable to address social issues in China. Though every university and college differ to various degrees in their number of qualified teachers, thus far most social work faculty members are drawn from social science fields such as sociology, philosophy, history, political science, or psychology (Chang, 2010). Without specific training and experience in social work, these scholars and specialists are undoubtedly not equipped to teach the essential curriculum related to values and ethics, practice methods, community organizing, and knowledge and skills unique to the field (Chen & Xiao, 2006; Xu, 1999; W. Zhang, 2010). Many ill-equipped small community colleges and four-year colleges provide social work programs but do not have any properly trained social work practitioners or faculty members to deliver the education.

Though China has often invited scholars and practitioners from Hong Kong and Taiwan to deliver essential training for a social work curriculum, the scale of such exchange programs and scholar visits does not come close to meeting the great demand for professional development across the country (Q. Wang & Wang, 2008).

Lack of Diversity and Variety in Delivering Social Work Education

The curriculum used in social work education programs throughout China is uniform, with little variation in content, substantive knowledge, or skills. Across the nation, every university and college offering a social work program has adopted a single set of curricula and models to train social work students and professionals, following the generalist education model (Shi, 2004). Whereas this uniformity may ensure that social work students receive equivalent information, this curriculum standardization may not address the diversity existing among different geographic areas and the subsequent variety of issues and needs of the vulnerable populations. For example, the difficulties and issues faced by people in the northern urban areas (e.g., migrant peasant-workers) may not necessarily be the same or reflect those faced by people in the southern rural areas (e.g., rural impoverishment and elderly people living in poverty). Concerns about uniformity in social work education programs have led to a debate about whether China should nurture specialized or general social work practitioners (Yan, 2008). The assumption behind the adoption of the generalist education model lies in the hopes that trained social work professionals will be able to rise to the occasion despite facing different issues and difficulties in each locale (Shi, 2004).

Disparity Across the Nation

In addition to the quality disparity among universities, social work education is also imbalanced among regions. As of 2009, most of China's 237 social work programs were distributed around the eastern coastal regions or the metropolitan areas. For example, 23 were located in Jiangsu Province, 17 in Beijing, 16 in Shangdong Province, 10 in Shanghai City, 10 in Zhejiang Province, and 12 in Wuhan City-all large metropolitan areas or provinces on the eastern coast (Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China, 2009). Only 54 programs were offered in all 12 provinces located in western China (out of the 23 total provinces in China; Ministry of Education, 2009). Few if any are established around the inland areas of China. This regional disparity is exacerbated by the fact that all of the social work programs currently offered in China focus on teaching skills and knowledge related to addressing urban issues. Combined, these gaps raise serious concerns about the capabilities of trained social work professionals to handle issues prevalent in rural areas, such as scarcity of job opportunities, scant education resources for children, extremely poor housing quality, lack of safe water and sanitation, and an absence of transportation infrastructure. In contrast, people in urban areas often face social issues surrounding workforce policies, such as poor working conditions and low wages.

Licensing Structure

In 2008, China instituted its first social worker licensing requirement and test. Since then

more than 220,000 people have registered for the test, and by 2009 more than 35,000 people had obtained professional certificates (Sheng, 2010). And yet, this infrastructure is still under development. The licensing requirement has not been made mandatory for every social work practitioner, and it has not been linked with the social work education curriculum (X. Li, 2007). Furthermore, scholars have not even yet reached consensus regarding the knowledge and skill sets that would qualify a trained social work student to become a licensed social worker.

Different locales have different needs and may require different sets of skills and knowledge; therefore, one set of national licensure might not be appropriate and adequate. Without such consensus, creating a salary or wage scheme that can appropriately and adequately compensate professional social workers is difficult. Instituting provincial, specific licensure, similar to state licensure instituted in the United States, might be the best option. The disparities in quality and quantity of social work education programs across provinces and locales, however, present another challenge in instituting such a localized licensure structure in the coming years.

Social Work Professional Identity

Unlike other social science disciplines such as sociology, demography, philosophy, and public administration that were established independently in China, the late initiation of social work programs has caused them to be subordinate to other social science specialties. Social work has yet to establish its own professional position and roles parallel to those of other professions and social sciences (Xiong, 2005).

As a result, at many universities, social work programs are a division under the department of sociology. This subordination is evident in the allocation of resources at universities--sociology and public administration tend to receive larger shares of material and nonmaterial support from the university than social work programs. In addition, college students tend to choose sociology or public administration as their first choice of study; only when these two disciplines are hill do some students choose social work as their major (Y. Li, 2010). Despite the obvious need in China for social workers, this lack of a social work professional identity has caused the 80,000 social work college students who graduated between 1988 and 2003 to have difficulty finding jobs in the social work arena (Sheng, 2010). Establishing social work as a profession with a unique identity in China is a crucial task and a priority in the years to come. As one step in this direction, a few universities have begun to explore the possibility of establishing a stand-alone independent school or department of social work (Xiong, 2005). For example, the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China offers five programs: sociology, demography, social work, anthropology, and ethnology. In addition, the establishment of a supervision structure in Shenzhen and Shanghai has also helped increase public awareness of the profession, which may affect a rise in the status of the social work profession.

Low Job Prestige and Limited Employment Opportunities

Related to the underdeveloped social work professional identity, the public has yet to become aware of the utility of the profession or the role that such professionals play in society. Many people in China consider social work to be a voluntary activity in which people participate outside of working hours and thus a type of work that should not be paid. Others mistakenly view social work as a job that deals with everything related to the "society." More importantly, because it is perceived as voluntary work, many people, including scholars, believe that everyone is capable of doing such work without any training (Y. Li, 2008). This confusion has unfortunately translated into low professional prestige and thus low wages and low compensation. For example, in 2008 the average entry-level employee earned more than 3,000 yuan per month; in comparison, entry-level social workers earned only 2,330 yuan. Similarly in Shanghai, entry-level social workers earned on average 1,000 yuan less per month than similar workers in other service industries (Y. Li, 2008, 2010).

Scant Third-Sector Organizations

Every country has its own social welfare paradigm in delivering services to its citizens. In most, if not all, Western countries this mostly involves a service delivery structure that incorporates both the public and private sectors. In China, in contrast, despite a large number of nongovernmental organizations or foundations currently in place, few are engaged in social work-related activities. For example, only 300 out of a total of 354,000 organizations handle civil affairs related to social work (Y. Li, 2008; Sheng, 2010). This scarcity leads to the paradox that undergraduate and graduate students from social work programs have difficulty finding jobs after graduation despite the immense need for social workers to address growing social issues in China.

The lack of qualified social work teachers and professionals, the disparity in education programs across the nation, and curricula inadequate to train future social work professionals combine to produce ill-equipped social work graduates in the field. These issues need immediate attention from professionals and scholars in China. Doing so may help build the social work professional identity and thus the status of the social work profession in China.

Prospects for Social Work Education in China

In any country, the social work profession is closely related to the political atmosphere, and China is no exception. China mirrors many other rapidly industrializing nations in that disparities and abuses have occurred such as poverty, adverse working conditions, and inadequate compensation for job-related injuries. Among a host of issues facing China, unwise or unfair allocation of scarce resources adversely affecting vulnerable populations remains a constant concern. The social work profession has often been the first line of defense in such situations in other countries, and addressing such inequalities requires not only adequate resources but also political will and a viable social structure. Social work education and the profession do not exist in a vacuum, and we are aware from experiences in other countries that existing political climates can threaten and undermine the very values that social work espouses as a profession committed to the preservation of human rights.

One cannot divorce social work education and practice from its context. In China, the historically strong political control by the central government has been extended to include the development of social work education and the viability of the profession. Such strong political force actually brings both advantages and disadvantages to China's social work education.

It is exactly because of the solid support from the central government that social work education in China is thriving. Social work scholars and professionals in China recognize this support as a valuable opportunity for the profession and have been in close contact with central government officials to provide scholarly advice on social policy and practice development. For example, renowned professors in top-tier universities are also State Council representatives. Thus, China's development of social work has been driven by the strong support of the central government, yet the direction, policies, and practices of the profession have been influenced by scholars.

We cannot, of course, overlook the disadvantages that usually accompany political influence on a scholarly profession. Thus far, this has not been an issue in China's social work development. Chinese social work professionals, however, must constantly be aware of the potential compromise between the profession's traditional focus on human rights and social justice and potential pressures to conform to a particular milieu, which could affect the education and training of the cadre of practitioners required to meet social needs. By examining how social work professionals in other countries have handled the challenges posed by political forces, social work professionals in China may take advantage of these countries' experience to shape their own knowledge and skill sets in handling similar political issues now and in the coming years.

Despite the many challenges facing social work education and professional development in China, the future looks bright for the profession. Over the past 10 years, the CCP and central government have focused on establishing a harmonious society that endorses the protection and promotion of all citizens' well-being. Accomplishing this goal will require a large number of social workers to address emerging social issues. Recent incidents and tragedies, such as a large strike attempt by peasant-workers and a series of suicide attempts in a factory, have led the CCP and the central government to view social policies as a way to maintain social order and to restore social cohesion. In addition to this unprecedented support from the government, we note a few key forces that will allow social work education in China to develop even more rapidly in the years to come.

Growing Participation From the Third Sector

The announcement of the Social Work Talent Troop in 2006 catalyzed the already rapidly expanding number of social work programs across the country. After the announcement, more than 170 areas and 260 government agencies developed various projects over the next year to train this troop. These projects have focused on training social work professionals in the areas of civil administration, medical service, the criminal justice system, education, and youth development. Since 2007, under CCP coordination, a total of 14 central ministries and commissions (including the Central Organization Department, the Ministry of Human Resources, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Civil Administration) have joined together to examine the logistics and issues related to cultivating a cadre of professional social workers. In addition to the new social work license established in 2008, China's central government has released many official documents to speed up social worker professional development. For example, since 2009 the government has issued guidelines about transitional and placement services for former prisoners as well as social security and assistance information for people with disabilities. Thereafter, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and other metropolitan areas released similar official documents to develop and foster social work professionals in these areas.

Multidimensional Development

The development of the social work profession in China since the 1980s has been multidimensional. Whereas the social work curriculum has been designed around Western models and concepts, the profession's role in society has developed quite differently in China. Social service delivery and practice (e.g., case work group work), community organization, and social policy in China have all been developing in tandem with the rise of social work as the profession to handle them. Thus, social work has taken on a much more comprehensive societal role than it has in Western countries. For example, in the United States, many social policies (e.g., welfare policy, employment policy, health policy, and work-life policy) have been driven by disciplines other than social work, such as economics, sociology, and public health. In China, these social policies now fall under the domain of the social work profession.

The profession's rise as the main driver behind social policy may be related to the infrastructural design of social work education programs. Because most social work programs began as a division within university sociology, demography, or public administration departments, social work professionals and scholars in China have received interdisciplinary training that has broadened the social work professional identity in China to be the best discipline to address social issues. Lacking from these training programs, however, are direct social services knowledge and skills with local populations and needs in mind, which China has been trying to establish. Also of concern, social work is likely to continue to struggle for its professional identity if social work programs remain situated under other social science disciplines.

Growing Native Knowledge and Skills

Many social work programs in China have started to discuss and exchange lessons learned from recent natural disasters and industrial incidents. In particular, the rescue and rebuilding efforts associated with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake have had a profound impact on social work education. Most noticeably, programs, particularly in Sichuan, have begun including mental health and disaster preparedness and response into their curricula. Similarly, many social work programs have started to incorporate lessons on mental health in industrial settings, with a focus on issues similar to the suicide attempts at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen.


China's rapidly developing and evolving economic environment is inevitably accompanied by a variety of social issues that are related but not limited to migrant peasant-workers, street children and children's educational needs, the disabled, the homeless, rural poverty, and older adults, particularly those living in impoverished rural areas. The widespread attention these issues have received, as well as their rapid expansion, has prompted the central government to react to maintain social order and cohesion. Whereas these issues may pose an enormous challenge to the Chinese government, they also present opportunities. The economic and social changes that have occurred over the past decade provide an impetus to not only the Chinese government but also the society as a whole to think through the direction and the framework for a harmonious society.

Market-based economic reforms initiated with the Open Door Policy have brought China into close contact with the world. China has learned a great deal from the West, including advanced sciences and technologies and sophisticated measures to better understand and address economic and social problems. As the government and its citizens struggle with the urgent need to help the vast number of Chinese in need, social work professionals have been placed at the front lines of this struggle.

The number of social work programs in China has grown from none 30 years ago to more than 260 across the nation by 2010. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people deliver social services daily with no for mal social work professional training. China's goal is to have 2 million trained social work professionals by 2015 and 3 million ready to enter the labor force by 2020. Though China still has few third-sector organizations, we anticipate that the number will grow soon, particularly given the profession's strong political support. Though the supply of social workers currently exceeds demand, we also expect that to change in the near future. We believe that China's social work education in coming decades will hold unprecedented development opportunities. We caution, however, that China must strategically work to resolve the many challenges (e.g., low prestige) it faces presently and the new ones (e.g., political compromise) that will develop in coming years to provide the infrastructure to nurture the next generation of qualified social work professionals. For example, scholars and faculty in social work programs must figure out how to glean wisdom from Western social work experiences and apply them appropriately to China's cultural and societal context.

Certainly, the social work education infrastructure will continue to expand in scope for at least the next 10 years, but perhaps more vitally needed is an increase in the quality and standards of this education. To ensure the effective delivery of social services to those in need by trained social work professionals, the societal standing of social work professionals needs to be defined and elevated. The professional identity and status are likely to grow in the near future through increasing awareness of the importance of supervision in social work agencies. A supervision structure that assures quality will elevate social workers' status. Changing the salary scheme to raise social workers' pay would also be a powerful step in conferring higher status to the profession in China. Additionally, universities and colleges with social work programs need to establish separate departments or schools of social work, which would each require a large number of qualified, professional faculty. One possible approach to achieving this would be to create a system that can train and recruit a multitude of faculty members by learning and sharing the expertise and experience of scholars and practitioners from Western societies.

The Western experience in designing and structuring the social work profession offers valuable lessons and best practices for China's government and academia. In addition, the growing knowledge and skills learned in the aftermath of major natural disasters and industrial incidents along with handling the myriad social issues in China will allow social work professionals to gain important native knowledge and skills that will help them shape social service delivery to accommodate the needs of a diverse society.


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Yingsheng Li

Renmin University of China

Wen-Jui Han

New York University

Chien-Chung Huang

Rutgers University

Accepted: 04/12

Yingsheng LI is professor at Renmin University of China, Wen-Jul Han is professor at New York University, and Chien-Chung Huang is associate professor at Rutgers University.

Address correspondence to Wen-Jui Han, New York University Silver School of Social Work, 1 Washington Square North, New York, NY 10003; e-mail:
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Author:Li, Yingsheng; Han, Wen-Jui; Huang, Chien-Chung
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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