Information For...

Social Work Around the World: Cross-Cultural Collaboration in China

December 01, 2017

China’s rapidly changing economy and demographics have resulted in an urgent need for social services. The China Program provides insight into the evolution of social work in the country, and the role that the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work will play in charting its future.

As China’s economic, social and cultural transformation continues, more challenges are on the horizon for the country’s nearly 1.4 billion residents. China is working to reinvigorate its social work practices, which were put on hold during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). While there is no shortage of academic programs or new talent in the field, the country faces some unique hurdles to re-establishing a full range of social services for its citizens.

Social Work’s Origins in China

Social work as a concept was introduced to the Chinese population by Western missionaries in the 1920s, but its ideology took root much earlier, originating as tenets within Confucianism and Buddhism. Confucius’ virtue of “ren” — which translates to “humaneness” — and Buddhism’s role as China’s main charitable framework ensured that the values of social work were present in the country’s collective consciousness from its early history onward.

Social work held the interest of educators from the outset, but increasing unrest and the rise of the Communist Party (CPC) in 1949 put independent social work on hold. Until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, all social welfare efforts were the domain of the Communist government.

The CPC’s grip on social welfare loosened in 1978, when China began to embrace a market economy. Collective agriculture and state-owned enterprises were dismantled during the 1990s, but without a replacement welfare system in place, the country soon faced a growing population in need of social services. After failed attempts to introduce social welfare as a joint effort between private, nonprofit, NGO and governmental sectors, the Chinese government formally re-introduced social work as a governmental priority and academic discipline in 1986. Since then, the popularity of social work has grown significantly: the number of programs available has increased more than tenfold between 1994 and 2011.

Social Work Today

The social work profession in China continues to grow as the country works to alleviate the struggles of its citizens. Estimates of the current number of social workers in China range from 10,000 to half a million professionals, and that number is projected to increase dramatically. Various sources have predicted that the total will rise to between 1.4 and 3 million by 2025.

In order for that growth to continue, several challenges must be addressed. First, the social work field suffers from low salaries, driving talented graduates away from the field. Raising compensation would not only make it easier to recruit new talent, but also improve the overall quality of the services provided.

Second, China must translate western social work tenets and texts to the country’s specific needs. Western social work principles are based on the presumptions of western society, which do not necessarily apply in China. Social workers and educators must adapt their approach to the unique conditions of the Chinese economy — mass rural-to-urban migration, income inequality and a growing elderly population — as well as to the restrictions placed upon their efforts by the Chinese government.

Collaboration with USC

It is this second challenge that our China Program, an international collaboration with the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Beijing Normal University (BNU), hopes to address. Led by Professor Iris Chi and Clinical Professor Doni Whitsett, the program is designed to facilitate social work education and training, for both Chinese and American students, in academic, governmental, charitable and business settings. It takes a wide-ranging view of the challenges China faces through research, curriculum development, faculty collaboration and outreach.

Program leaders acknowledge cultural differences between China and the U.S., and work to ensure that those differences are bridged effectively. “China is in the social development phase of its social work life,” says Clinical Associate Professor Kristen Zaleski. “The way we do social work in the U.S. is not how China is going to do social work. We’re providing the scaffolding for them to design [the future of social work in their country].”

Into the Future

Eventually, administrators hope to turn the program into a true 1+1 program, in which Chinese students can start their education at BNU, finish at USC, and earn degrees from both schools.   USC is also collaborating with Guangdong Technical University in Guangzhou on a multi-year effort to develop classroom curriculum and field education units on topics ranging from drug and alcohol issues to disaster recovery efforts.

To learn more about efforts to grow the social work profession in China, visit our China Program website.