(Illustration by Ben Wiseman) 

Editor’s Note: In June 2014, the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society hosted its inaugural Junior Scholars Forum. The following article covers a not-yet-published research paper that was presented at the forum. To learn more about the paper, please email its author, Ling Han.

In democratic societies, social work has a long history as a formal profession. But in China, social work began to emerge only eight years ago, after the state passed legislation that called for “a battalion of social workers to construct a harmonious socialist society” and for the institution of a national social work exam for university graduates. That legislation paved the way for the emergence of a new kind of non-governmental organization—the social work agency, or SWA—in urban China. Registered with the state but enjoying a degree of institutional independence, SWAs are staffed largely by young social workers who embody values that favor the advance of civil society.

So argues Ling Han, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, San Diego, who studies SWAs and how they are helping to bring about social change in China. Traditionally, she explains, the provision of social services has been the responsibility of “community residents’ committees” (CRCs), which are staffed mainly by state retirees and which act on behalf of work units and local governments. But in recent years, SWAs have begun to supplement the work of CRCs. “Right now, the CRCs are having difficulties accommodating everyone, so the SWAs are performing services, such as for the elderly or the young,” says Han. “The SWAs fill in for [the local] government and, at the same time, try to incorporate some of their expertise into this work.”

The SWAs have a structural advantage over most NGOs that operate in China. Unlike other NGOs, they are funded and tacitly endorsed by the state. Yet their work does not necessarily reflect the state’s core values. In effect, they occupy a unique intermediary role between the state and the Chinese people. As a result, Han suggests, they are in an ideal position to embed the humanistic values of their field—values such as social justice and personal empowerment—into the provision of urban social services. The SWAs occupy a “contested” space in China, according to Han: “The state wants the SWAs to resolve social tensions, and the SWAs want to advance their profession.”

For her research, Han selected nine organizations from a database of 63 SWAs in Beijing. To study those groups, she used qualitative research methods, including in-depth semi-structured interviews and participant observation techniques. (In some cases, that is, she accompanied social work professionals in the field as they implemented their projects.) Han found that although SWAs enjoy a high degree of leverage in the service-provision sector, they have yet to take full advantage of their expanding role within Chinese society. “The SWAs need to set up more specific objectives, especially about how to advance their professional autonomy,” she says.

Han’s research covers a development that, though still in its early stages, could have a profound effect on Chinese civil society. “This kind of community-building effort was rare before [the rise of the SWA]. There were very few organizations that the government trusted to deliver such services,” says Meng Zhao, an assistant professor of organization and strategy at the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo. SWAs, he suggests, “represent a very important group of organizations that may grow into something very powerful and interesting in the next couple of years.”

Ling Han, “Contested Social Work: Service-Provision NGOs and Community Change in Urban China.”

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