Social Work in Hong Kong

Ernest W.T. Chui

Hong Kong is essentially a Chinese community with a great majority (95%) of its population being ethnic Chinese. However, with more than 150 years of colonial history, and also located as the gateway to mainland China, Hong Kong has been characterized as a place where 'East meets West', and is probably the most Westernized city in China. As social work is essentially a 'Western' discipline, it would be interesting to analyze how this 'foreign' academic discipline and profession finds its root and develops in this Westernized Chinese city. This chapter firstly provides a brief introduction of the city of Hong Kong, as above, and then gives a review of the historical development of the social work profession in the context of social welfare development. It then provides a brief account of the evolution of and recent developments in the professional training and education in social work, as well as the professional community, and ends up with highlights of the upcoming challenges facing the profession.

The Context of Social Work Practice: Social Welfare in Hong Kong

Similar to the experience of other advanced countries in which the social work profession flourishes, Hong Kong's social work practice is also working within the context of social welfare. It is therefore essential to have a contextual understanding of the evolution of social welfare in Hong Kong.

In 1842, when Britain took over Hong Kong as her colony, she merely regarded it as a stepping stone for entering the huge mainland China market. Thus, the colonial regime maintained a minimal administration and was not keen on welfare provision for the then sparse population. Welfare provision for the indigenous people was left to the pre-existent traditional philanthropic associations and local community and clansmen organizations. This minimal welfare stance had been maintained before World War II. When Britain resumed governance after the Japanese occupation during the war, the colonial administration still relied on international relief organizations to provide help for the poor and the Chinese refugees coming across the Chinese border. Thus, local academics commented that the social welfare system at that time was essentially a residual model, and the government's stance on social welfare was passive and discouraging (Chow, 2008) and non-interventionist (Aspalter, 2006; Chui, 2007; McLaughlin, 1993).

This could be seen from the government's first White Paper on social welfare

in 1965, in which the British colonial administration claimed that excessive social
welfare provision would break down the family and its traditional functions (HKG, 1965). The government had refrained from developing a welfare state that would cost it money. Furthermore, it was believed that welfare provision could breed dependence and jeopardize people's incentive to work, which resembles the neoconservative tenet of 'moral hazard' (Barry, 1999; George, 1997). The priority of the colonial regime had been on developing the economy. Given that Hong Kong was not naturally endowed with resources, and had a relatively small internal market, these apparently provided the rationale for the government to maintain relatively low tax rates and adopt laissez-faire policies to provide a favorable business environment for local and foreign investors. Thus, social development was subordinated to economic development, which made Hong Kong resemble such East Asian states as Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, to become a 'developmental state' (Ramesh, 2004; Tang, 2000).

Apart from economic concerns, there was also the pervasiveness of a normative order that sustained anti-welfarism in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong is a Chinese community, there is the influence of traditional Chinese culture, in particular familism, which regards the family as the basic entity that plays the crucial role of caregiving for its members. The traditional virtue of filial piety in particular specifies the younger generation's duty of care for older family members (Chow, 1992). On the other hand, there is also an emphasis on the traditional virtues of self-reliance and self-sufficiency and denigration of dependence on others. Seeking help, to a large extent, should be avoided, or at most, confined to immediate family members or clansmen. There is thus a subtle stigmatization of the concept of seeking welfare from others (Mak and Cheung, 2008), especially with the prevalent Chinese norm of avoiding 'loss of face'.

As a result, there appeared to be concurrence in welfare ideology between the government and the general public in heralding self-reliance and minimal state provision. All in all, government's provision of social welfare had been kept to a minimum and welfare had never been seen as a right for citizens, but rather benevolent acts of the government that people should be thankful for (Tam and Yeung, 1994).

A major 'paradigm shift' in the government's stance on welfare came in the 1970s, which marked the beginning of progressive development, or the 'golden era', of social welfare in Hong Kong. After a major social riot in 1966–1967, the colonial regime began launching massive programs on public housing, health care, free education, and welfare.

This, nonetheless, was made possible by the post-war economic growth that had bestowed on the government sufficient revenues to improve people's living conditions. By the early 1980s, the social welfare system had secured a basic standard of living for all Hong Kong people, and the wide range of service provisions was said to be comparable to other developed societies (Chow, 2003):

It is also in the 1970s that there was a marked change in the government–NGO interface in local welfare provision. When Hong Kong had gradually become prosperous, there came the gradual shrinkage of overseas funding to the NGOs. Then, the NGOs had to turn to be reliant upon government funding. It is also in this context that the NGO welfare sector had engaged in a “partnership” relationship with the government in which the government provided funding to the NGOs which delivered professional social work services to the Hong Kong citizenry.

However, times were changing, especially with the rise of neoconservatism worldwide, set against the background of the 'rolling back of the welfare state' in the 1980s with the ascendancy of the Conservative Thatcher administration in the United Kingdom and the Republican Reagan administration in the United States. The Hong Kong government had started to adopt more neoconservative notions in welfare policy and this had significant repercussions in the social work profession as practitioners became subject to pressure from the government through its financial subsidy. Specifically, commencing from the late 1980s, the then colonial administration began adopting privatization strategies, following the British sovereign regime that practiced neoconservativism in social policies. In welfare, the government had started to exercise more stringent control over expenditure. In particular, with the pervasive trend of managerialism, more 'market-oriented' principles had been adopted; these included such notions as the 3Es (i.e., economy, efficiency, effectiveness) and the 3Ms (i.e., market, management, measurement).

Such a trend had been carried over after the turnover of political regime in 1997, when the inaugural administration had basically followed its predecessor in adopting such neoconservative welfare ideology. With respect to its working relationship with the NGOs, the government had assumed an even more predominant role over the nongovernmental welfare sector. The previous scenario in which the government and the NGOs could basically work collaboratively under a 'partnership' relationship turned to be one characterized by the service purchaser–provider dyad. Specifically, the government introduced contracting-out of welfare services in 1999, which aptly manifested such a changed relationship. In fact, the breaking up of the government–NGO collaboration was signified by the abrupt halt in 1998 of the Five-Year Program Plan Review exercise that originally was a platform for NGOs and the government to negotiate and plan in accordance with systematic review of demand and shortfall of welfare services.

Moreover, in 1999, the government also commenced the 'Service Performance Management System' for the NGOs. This reflects the government's adherence to the tenets of 'New Public Administration', especially that of emphasizing 'accountability' in the usage of public funds. In 2001 the government introduced the 'Lump Sum Grant' subvention system in its provision of subsidy to NGOs. This new funding regime signifies the government's shift of monitoring the NGOs from 'input' to 'output' to ensure delivery of quality services. Under this funding system, NGOs are bound by a contractual 'Funding and Service Agreement' to deliver specific service outputs. The emphasis on quantitative output indicators has affected the daily delivery of social services, exerted much pressure on social work practitioners, and to a certain extent affected the professional practitioners' performance of their duties, thus undermining professional autonomy. In another instance, this new funding mode was meant to enable NGOs to have more flexibility
in their resource allocation, especially in staff salary and manpower establishment. However, this results in the formal uncoupling of social workers' salaries from the civil service salary scale, which in practice is a reduction of the overall remuneration package for the social workers serving in the NGO. This has resulted in considerable demoralizing amongst the nongovernmental social work community.

Also in 1999, the government instituted a system of competitive bidding in which NGOs have to compete for service contracts from the government. This contracting mechanism has brought instability to service delivery as contracts are usually short-term. In addition, it has spurred intense competition and thereby induced hostility amongst the NGOs, which turned out to be divisive for the welfare sector. It has been commented that the introduction of these managerialist doctrines into the welfare sector could be viewed as the government's attempt at containment of welfare expansion and control over the NGO sector, which could be regarded as operating under a 'statist–corporatist regime' (Lee and Haque, 2006, 2008).

The above review serves to provide the changing context in which social workers perform their professional duties in serving the Hong Kong community. In the following, various pertinent issues related to manpower, service scope, training and education, and development of professional organizations, will be discussed.

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