Is Social Work a Prospective Profession in China?

©Wenjing, 2018

During a recent speech, Sibin Wang, a Chinese sociologist who has been working to promote the profession of social work in China, explained efforts to define the field: “Recently, we worked with the Department of Education to offer a definition of social work as a profession. A definition that can be described within two sentences.” As one of the most famous sociologists in China spoke these words, everyone in the auditorium laughed out loud.

How does it feel to be a social worker in mainland China? Many “social workers” have no idea what they are doing professional social workers’ tasks when they are in communities. The question for developing social work is to expose social work as much as possible in public by offering social services operated with social workers, and efficiently allocate funding for social work organizations and social work education. Social work needs to be taken seriously, as this profession is helping to address many social issues.

In fact, many limitations have constrained the development of social work in mainland China. Major cities in China such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong, may have more resources to develop this profession as they are more capable of controlling their fiscal distributions. Although the central government had already published a regulation to put more funding into developing social work nationally, these resources have not been used efficiently by local governments in Southwestern areas. The question is: how much is that funding and is it adequate for Southwestern areas in mainland China to keep up with the average level of those major cities. The answers are “Never know” and “No,” respectively for the previous two questions.

As discussed before, the central government had an expectation for social work profession, but the government mainly utilizes licensed or non-licensed social workers to add on its primary-level organization, which is the lowest-level government that is in charge of surrounding communities. Because of this “dependency” on the social work profession, social work has difficulty being independent in an economic market. Moreover, many social work organizations rely on the governments to survive due to the dearth of funding. From the level of regulation, every social work organization becomes a Non-Governmental-Organization in paperwork, but in reality, it is under governmental control. For instance, many social work organizations are located in governmental offices of districts.

Whether this “intimate relationship” is a positive prescience leaves us with uncertainty.

In order to meet the expectation of the central government, the educational system is planning to authorize more universities to have social work programs. With this rapid shift of attitude for many universities which encourage social work to be a scientific major in one school, more universities are using social work to expand their enrollment regardless of whether they have met the standard of launching a major. Universities might not have sufficient resources for social work. For example, they do not have licensed social workers, MSW social workers, and Ph.D. social workers to prop up this major. No matter how, universities will manage this by transferring faculty from other major and randomly assigning them to teach social work students in schools.

“Why does our university let history professor teach social work?”

“I don’t know. I am going to change my major when we’re the second-year students.”

Many universities have a long tradition of allowing students to change their major when they are in second-year. Because of this policy, many students switch their major without hesitation. I clearly remembered that there were only 30 students in our major after the second year of college. We used to have 80 students who majored in social work. Even in an agricultural university in my province, economy and business are the most popular majors. This popularity means many resources allotted to the school of economy/business.

Despite many universities cannot cultivate a fair amount of qualified social workers for its job market, “social workers” who are in the job field do not understand what social work is as a profession. I interviewed one of my friends who was a social worker about what they actually do when they are in the community. She said that she would be responsible for organizing events and waited for residents to come. Until now, she believed that the social work profession is only for someone who needs group work, and the essence of this profession is to play with different people at an event. The reason that she has this thought because social work majors are not divided into different fields (clinical, policy, and social enterprise administration, etc.) for students, so the students don’t have clear notions of different level of social work practice. For example, lots of social work school in the United States have multiple choices for social work students. Students focus on what they are passionate about. In other words, social work students in China are doing everything but no concentration for them to choose.

In one social worker’s practical field, he/she will not have individual case works or policy researches. If you work in a community, all you have is to do group work and mingle. If you establish a social enterprise, you need to raise funding from the local government unless you are wealthy enough. Four fields of social work will be tangled with governmental control. There are no professionally clinical social workers because people who have mental problems are too ashamed to ask for help. There is no plenty of grants for you to start your research proposal.

“Do you know what social workers are?”

“Well, are they the members of neighborhood committee where people always gossip with others?”

Many students major in social work will go into the job market, although this major is not popular and prospective. To increase its popularity and get much attention from the public, we need to address the problem in social work education, such as allocating sufficient resources for colleges and establishing a systematic teaching path. For now, social work organizations depend on governmental support. This is an approach to obtain funding. However, social work needs its voice to play advocacy.

Social work remains a prospective profession in mainland China; however, it is just not that popular now.