Diffusion of Hong Kong's Social Work into Mainland China
From the 1990s onwards, even before the handover in 1997, local NGOs had already ventured into exploring service provision in mainland China. The author's earlier study in 1999 found that some 17 NGOs had set up service units or
commenced collaborative projects with either the government at various levels or NGOs in 16 provinces in China (Chui, 1999). Amongst the 12 agencies that were interviewed, one commenced its service in China in the 1970s, three in the 1980s, and eight in the 1990s. Most recently, with the increasing awareness and recognition of the indispensable role of a professional social work service in tackling emerging social problems, there could be a potential demand for some 3 million social workers in the whole country (CASW, 2008).
There has been a burgeoning of setting-up or reinstituting social work schools or departments at universities. Some municipal governments even made bold attempts, probably modelled on the Hong Kong government's strategy of 'purchasing' services from, or providing subsidies to, Hong Kong NGOs, to commence service provision in various cities. For instance, after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, a Hong Kong NGO was invited to set up a centre in Sichuan to provide rehabilitation services for the victims who suffered from various kinds of physical injury. In another instance, the city of Shenzhen, the city with the second highest GDP in China, commissioned a Hong Kong NGO to provide a community mental health project in 2009, largely using the 'Hong Kong model' of service delivery.
It is to be reckoned that, through the author's contact with government officials and service operators throughout the years, there appears to be a perception amongst the policymakers and operators that, since Hong Kong is a Chinese community that has already experimented with localization and indigenization of Western, empirically proven models of professional social work practice, China should embrace the Hong Kong model of social work readily.
Nonetheless, with years of experience in providing training in China, the author takes a sceptical view of this perception and would hope that colleagues in mainland China will leave sufficient room for further indigenization of Hong Kong's model with due consideration of China's own specific context; especially in view of the great diversity exhibited amongst the urban and rural, as well as coastal and inland regions.
Roles and Image of Social Workers
The classic literature on the roles of a social worker, contains a wide range of roles, from activist, advocate, counselor, enabler, and facilitator, to mediator, organizer, and trainer. However, from the more critical social work literature, there can be seen a dichotomous role differentiation between a 'social control agent' and a 'social change agent'. The former denotes the conventional roles of social workers in welfare provision to the destitute, thus largely playing a remedial role to alleviate the casualties of social problems. This could be seen as working on a relatively micro or individual level. The latter, on the contrary, apparently is more concerned with tackling the root causes of social problems related to deprivation, social injustice, and so on that are rooted in socioeconomic, cultural, political, or grossly institutional factors. Social workers are there to rectify social ills by inducing
change at a macro level. In Hong Kong, social workers also exhibit this whole array of different roles that characterize their counterparts in other parts of the world.
Nonetheless, there is a certain degree of confusion amongst the local citizenry between 'social worker' and 'volunteer', as the Chinese words for the two appear to be quite similar. That explains why social work students at universities have been telling their teachers that they might have been subjected to their parental dissuasion regarding social work as a subject as their parents perceive 'volunteers' as generating no income.
In another instance, a social worker is highly regarded by the general public as someone doing 'good deeds' for others, again, to a certain extent due to the aforementioned confusion with 'volunteers' and also due to the general impression portrayed in mass media that social workers are committed to helping the poor, the sick, and the destitute. Thus, when Hong Kong embarked on 'democratic opening' in the 1980s with the introduction of district level popular elections, many of the candidates who happened to be social workers – or using the title 'social worker' (as it was only after the enactment of the Social Workers Registration Ordinance in 1997 that the improper use of the title was made illegal) – got elected. It should also be understood against this background that before the introduction of such local-level elections many of the social workers, especially community organizers, had assisted many clients in deprived communities to get benefits in terms of improvement in housing, social services, and the like. The social workers in general, and community workers in particular, have proven their efficacy in fighting for justice, benefiting the people and society at large, and thus won the people's general trust and confidence.
As revealed in a local study, social workers in Hong Kong generally have a positive image amongst local citizens, as a profession that looks after the deprived and disadvantaged. They are also seen as bringing hope and confidence to those being helped, enhancing their determination to tackle their problems. However, social workers could only secure the trust of slightly more than half of the respondents (53%), which was lower than doctors (76%) and nurses (63%) (Wong and Leung, 2005). There is apparently the need for the local social work community to portray a clear and positive image amongst the public that is of paramount importance for social worker practitioners to work effectively with their clients (LeCroy and Stinson, 2004).
A special note should be given to the political role played by social workers in Hong Kong that is contextualized in Hong Kong's political development in recent decades. As revealed in Chui and Gray's (2004) historical review of Hong Kong's development from the postwar period to the near present, it could be postulated that the socioeconomic and political development of Hong Kong society has provided a fertile social context for the development of social workers' participation in politics in Hong Kong. There had been a gradual shift from the service role to that of participating in informal and then formal channels of political participation.
There are three distinctive roles played by the social work community: first,
social workers emerged from a service-oriented profession; then they increasingly
played a policy advocacy role working through informal channels; eventually they evolved to take up a cogently political role by utilizing the formal channels of election and political representation in district councils and the legislature. These three different roles, according to Chui and Gray (2004: 179) are neither mutually exclusive nor conflicting with one another. This evolution of the 'politicization of social workers' (Chui, 1989), is essentially a manifestation of the dialectical relationship between Hong Kong's political evolution and the social functions of the social work profession, which in itself is contextualized as a natural evolution of the increasing role of government intervention in social policies, and the sudden politicization of society at large induced by the political changeover in 1997 (Chui and Gray, 2004).