A Profession to Help Others

profhelp1The New Phase of Social Work in Dongguan

During the relatively youthful reign of the PRC over the past 60 years, civil rights and freedoms often gave way to political stability and economic development. It wasn’t until 2008 that social work was emphasized by the Chinese government to maintain social stability. Dongguan has been closely following the national policies in building its new system of helping the society’s underprivileged, and becoming one of the pilot cities that attracts social work elites from all over the country.

Inspired by a statement taken from the Sixth Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee in 2006, “a harmonious society needs a powerful troop of social workers,” the first national qualification exam followed in 2008 establishing officially a new profession whose study resumed in Chinese universities in 1989 (it was suspended out of political reasons in the 1950s). Afterward, social service organizations began to steadily sprout throughout China.

Among the cities financially able to improve social care, Dongguan was included in the second batch of pilot cities in 2009 following the first series of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai in developing social work, and began to build a brand-new social service system from scratch that, among others, would cover education, drug abuse, justice and public health. The cost of social work was added into the municipal fiscal budget back in 2009, but it also increased that budget annually from RMB 60,000 to 72,000 per social worker in 2011 to cover an increase in salary and administrative costs.

Reborn and Strengthened

Social service had a short existence under the Republic of China in the 1930s, but remained quite absent until 2008. Partial social services were provided by village committees, trade unions, Communist Youth Leagues and women’s federations or other government agencies in helping the elderly, handicapped, homeless juveniles and orphans. Up to 2005, these organizations reached to 95,000 in number, but were still unable to meet increasing needs, as more and more social problems emerged and were reported. Very little of the work was done by professional social workers.

The launch of 2008’s qualifying exam was triggered by the devastating Sichuan earthquake when thousands of social workers and volunteers from overseas came to help in reconstructing the fragile villages. It was then that the government realized the impact of social work on the rebirth and stability of society.

Relying on the financial and positional support, the number of social workers tripled to 900 in the last three years.

In 2009, after months of observing the first wave of operations, the Dongguan government released a series of documents that established four social service centers and standardized practitioners’ salary and qualifications. This allowed government agencies, enterprises and schools in need of social services to hire social workers from the registered organizations. On top of salaries for social workers and social insurance, the payment also includes the organizations’ operational fees, rent and management costs. Another way for the service providers to get funding, launched by the Dongguan Civil Affairs Bureau in 2011, is to bid on venture philanthropy projects. Through verification, review and a system of voting, 28 proposals submitted by various non-profit social organizations received RMB 10 million in funding to focus on the helping of underprivileged groups for one year.

Relying on the financial and positional support, the number of social workers tripled to 900 over the last three years. The plan is to employ 2,500 social workers that will cover half of the city’s 600 communities and villages by the end of 2015. All candidates are required to be certified by taking the national qualification exam. Those that did not spend their college years majoring in social work must have two years of experience working in the community before the exam. The number of people taking the exam in Dongguan has increased rapidly every year.

“The government doesn’t do these jobs themselves, instead they create positions in communities and provide subsidies to the projects. They also hire professional assessment organizations to estimate our services, so we are pretty much under great pressure,” said Luo Ruijie, the administrative director of Dongguan Xingyang Social Services, one of the first. “We hope that we can do more service in prevention and development. If we can take precautions early on, our society won’t have so many problems,” he said.

When Rong Ren, a 26-year-old social worker from Guangxi Province, picked the major seven years ago, he learned the slogan, “small government, big society,” motivating him to believe decentralized entities could assist China, and longed for the future of the new profession. He realized his two-year experience requirement during the Beichuan, Sichuan earthquake, when the county lost over 15,000 lives. Soon he was drawn to Dongguan by a great demand for worker talent and worked in the Zhengyang Social Service Center, one of the four earliest organizations in the city. Now he is the deputy director general and is charged with the operation, planning, extension and public relations for all its services.

“Unlike the villagers in Beichuan, who are simple and honest, Dongguan locals’ sympathy and kindness has been blunted by 30 years of economic construction,” he said. “We are helping them to pick up these things. This is why our community service emphasizes building their sense of belonging to the community.”

Help People Help Themselves

To teach people how to help themselves with their problems has a powerful impact, but for social workers to exert this upon their clients takes time as practitioners gain an understanding of the slogan’s exact meaning. “Before, my understanding of this concept was backwards: We help people at the same time help ourselves,” confessed Zhang Lingling, a social worker in Zhengyang, who now has two years of experience in the field. Taking the path of social worker after graduation, she totally changed her conception at the beginning of 2012 when she visited and observed her contemporaries in Hong Kong. “The concept is so clear in Hong Kong. I help people to help themselves. This is the best part of the profession. It gives me a sense of satisfaction,” said Zhang.

“When we just started to do work here, they were not totally trusting,” said Zhou. “Some of them thought we were con artists.”

Currently working in adolescent services around five communities in Dongcheng, Zhang is helping a few “invisible teenagers,” a term used to indicate depressed teens that keep themselves away from friends and family and refuse to go to school. To get them out of their shells to join in the real world, Zhang and her colleagues must arouse their curiosity to try new things and work closely with families. “We are so happy to see that they are taking their first step by thinking ‘maybe I should learn something.’ We will help them build up their confidence gradually,” Zhang said.

Launched in 2012, the anti-domestic violence program is one of the three projects subsidized by the venture philanthropy project from the Xingyang Social Services. After two years of solid experience, Feng Xiangpu was ready to take the challenge by dedicating himself to the program. “It’s much harder than the community social work,” Feng said. “We only have two people and our program is aimed at the whole city. We need to take at least 30 cases, and 50 public relations events, plus all the phone inquires and paper work.”

Although equipped with consulting teams that consist of psychology and legal experts, without a unified transition platform, there are limits to what they can do. In domestic violence cases it is still not acceptable for police or women’s federations to intervene. They normally ignore these cases unless they are life- threatening, or at most stop the violence in single instances. Traditional thinking, the belief that domestic affairs should be solved without the involvement of a third party, plays a role in these decisions. Convincing these government agencies to transfer the cases to them is one of the primary burdens of Feng’s current position. “We are gradually setting up experimental communities and trying to break them one by one. We will talk to them and ask them to transfer the cases when they receive it,” said Feng.

Educating victims in how to protect themselves and to solve crisis, and explaining to abusers the consequences of violence, are their normal ways to handle the cases. They will provide legal information to clients and evidences to courts as well. They also lack financial and administrative support to build a shelter for victims. “The locals can go to their friends’ or relative’s. The problem is the poorer immigrants. They have no place to go. Last year we had no choice but to send two victims to the rescue center (a temporary homeless shelter),” Feng said.

Community service is a big part of social work and one of the biggest channels to introduce the profession. On a sunny July morning, social worker Zhou Rixi led two young volunteer barbers from the CA Hair Salon to wander around the old alleys of Shilong Town providing haircuts to seniors. Sitting on the edge of an open living room and accompanied by three puppies, Uncle Kun warmly welcomed Zhou and the volunteers.

“When we started our work here, they were not totally trusting,” said Zhou. “Some of them thought we were con artists. We had to visit them again and again and patiently explain what we do. We take actual actions to show them we do care about them.” Placing five social workers since 2009 in the community center, it focuses on teenagers, elderly locals and disabled citizens. The free haircuts offered to debilitated seniors is a service and a chance to further learn of their needs.

In Hengli Town’s Gekeng community, Dongguan’s first non-governmental immigrant service center, was founded by the celebrated Hong Kong social worker Xu Xiangling. The 80-year-old veteran was a Hong Kong table tennis champion at 19 before dropping out from the sports world and becoming a social worker for the past 29 years. “This had something to do with my personality. If you ask me to do the same thing every day, I’ll be tired of it soon,” said Xu, explaining why he didn’t follow an athletic career as a National player, but chose a totally different direction instead. After he and his wife moved to Hengli, they noticed the adversity of many low-educated migrants in the town. They established the service center in 2005 with their own pension.

The Dongguan Gekeng Community Center is a 12-story leisure and learning center for migrants that is comprised of a gym, library, classrooms, meeting rooms, table-tennis rooms, and a playground and physical training area for the children. As the first social service center focusing on immigrants, a group often forgotten by local authorities, the center raised great attention to the group. After gaining its proper license in 2009, it remains a platform for communications between the Mainland and Hong Kong social workers, and attracts staff and donations from Hong Kong all year long.

Youthful Energy

With merely five years of publicity, most people don’t know exactly what social workers do or have even heard of the position, creating obstacles to the operations of services. Although the government has started to explore a more suitable model of development, more and more problems are, and will be surfacing. The new profession also requires time to cultivate a generation of talent. After all, being a social worker needs more than just a single exam or certificate.

“Social workers are not known as well as police or teachers, many people don’t know what you do. Although more and more people have accepted our service, most people have low recognition of our work,” said Rong. “In their opinions, they’ve never thought of such a good thing, that there are people out there actually going to help them for free. We must do a lot of publicity by ourselves and from local media. They can also find us through traditional channels such as local community centers, women’s federations or the Communist Youth League.”

“We have an expression that says, ‘Social workers must have the personality like water, and a strong stomach,’” said Luo.

Compared to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where social service has thrived for decades, Dongguan’s 900 social workers are a small force in a city of over 8 million. Relying on one sole financial source, their service is selective and determined by the government, and mainly focuses on local residents. “From the service content point of view, most social services are leaning toward development and prevention— recreation activities and education— targeting exposure and an easy way to better know their clients,” said Rong. “While services for individual cases have been included, they must be supervised due to the lack of experience of most practitioners.”

As to building social worker teams, they were all born post 1980s and a lack life experience may be a shortcoming. But at the same time they are eager to learn and easily absorb new theory, making up for the disadvantage. “We have an expression that says, ‘Social workers must have the personality like water, and a strong stomach,’” said Luo. It means social workers should adjust to every single client they face, and absorb and digest every single theory they learn. Some people may doubt the low threshold will decrease the professionalism of the area, but under China’s circumstances, there are few choices to rapidly enlarge the amount of talent in a short time.

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