Career: Assistant Professor | New York University | New York City, New York, USA
The Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 and the Development of Social Work in China
Many analysts take the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 as a turning point for the history of social work in China. The term “social work” came to be widely known after this natural disaster, and social workers came to be recognized and praised as a positive force for earthquake relief by the public. This still leaves several questions unanswered, however.
First, do volunteers count as social workers? Immediately after the earthquake, thousands of volunteers came to Sichuan and worked with professional social workers in non-profit organizations (NPOs). These volunteers often were a point of confusion for local people and were lumped together with social workers in the same category. We do not want to deny the importance of volunteers, but in the case of the Sichuan earthquake, their presence resulted in reducing the appreciation of social workers because they did have the same professional skills.
In what sense are professional social workers really professional? To be sure, they engage in disaster prevention and intervention as in the cases of the Katrina hurricane and the tsunami in Asia, and they have always been at the forefront of providing professional skills in community rebuilding and mental health intervention. In the Sichuan earthquake, social workers did this, but at least in some cases, they did not do it well, resulting in confusion and even conflict over the appropriate treatment to be provided. For example, one refugee reported that a social worker told him to feel free to cry and express his sorrow, while another told him not cry and keep his feelings to himself. Such cases aggravate the mistrust of social workers. In addition, a social worker friend told me that there was some discrimination against her and her colleagues from psychiatrists because social work was not yet recognized as a bona fide profession. So on the one hand, there is a bright future for social work in China, given the many problems emerging with the country’s growth, problems that will require the intervention of professionals. On the other hand, a great deal of effort and recognition are still to come.
Social work education has already started up in China. There are nearly 300 social work programs in the country, an increase of more than 200% since 2000.
Among these programs, several can be found at the nation’s most prestigious universities such as Peking University and Fudan University. The question is whether all these programs provide high quality education. Maybe not. For starters, many lack faculty members with a social work background, and this raises questions about how students are supposed to obtain good professional skills training.
What kind of social work does China need? Social work is an area of professional expertise based on Western assumptions about economic, political and cultural contexts. In an age of globalization, this expertise has been introduced into the Third World. It appears to work well in Africa because Western systems of market economy and privatization, along with their social structure, have been transplanted there and many African countries have moved toward Western models.
What about China? It is a country that has opened the door to the world and has a market economy. However, social structure has not undergone much change, especially in the inland provinces, where social workers are needed the most. The Chinese social system is built around families and connected by kin and geographic relationships. Family and hometown provide people with a security net, providing not only economic safety, but also emotional protection. Hence the tasks confronting social work may differ from those found elsewhere, and the profession may need to be adjusted to meet the needs of Chinese culture as it works with family and community.
The 2008 earthquake provides some good examples of what I have in mind. It turned out that the appropriate focus of rescue and assistance may not be the individual in isolation. Even with the loss of a family in such cases, Chinese individuals still had many connections with neighbors and other friends and may have preferred speaking with them rather than with social workers to find relief from their plight. In such cases social workers may need to be more patient, and they may need to start with a careful assessment of the social status of clients and a respect for their wishes. By following such procedures, social work and social workers may be accepted more readily by the public in China. In addition, social work education needs to be aware of culture differences, and they need to be reflected not only in textbooks but practical training of students.
As an applied social science social work in China has a good future, but in order for it to thrive it will need to make great efforts to adapt to its particular cultural setting. And conversely, good policy, along with the right media and public context needs to be created to help it grow.