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A social work revolution

China has declared they will train three million social workers by 2020. Social Work professors Siu Ming Kwok and Dora Tam are at the forefront of this unprecedented boom.

Siu Ming Kwok and Dora Tam, presenting at an international conference focused on "transforming social welfare and social work in China..."

It has been called one of the largest movements of humanity in history. In the last three decades China has moved from being a largely rural, agrarian country to an urban nation. 500 million people have moved from the countryside to the big cities and to the recently created “instant” cities – factory boomtowns that have popped up along the coast – new manufacturing hubs that are driving the Chinese government’s economic reforms.

“Many migrant workers from rural and remote areas have come to the urban areas to work,” says Dora Tam, PhD, a researcher with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work. “These young people have to deal with isolation, and make many other adjustments. Economic growth comes with other issues. At the same time that many people are becoming wealthy, many others are being marginalized because they don't benefit from the economic growth for many reasons.” 

Dora Tam and Siu Ming Kwok, PhD, are the latest faculty additions to Social Work’s Southern Alberta Region, which is located on the University of Lethbridge campus. In Siu Ming’s neat and sunny office, the husband and wife team patiently take me through a dizzying (and growing) list of research projects, collaborations and interests in Canada and China. In fact, the two recently returned from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China where they had presented research on China’s new domestic violence law at an international conference. 

A time of social transformation in China

It seems almost unimaginable that the China of even ten years ago, would host a conference entitled: Transforming Social Welfare and Social Work in China under the New Normal Conditions. The language is new, as is the openness in dealing with issues such as domestic violence. The conference was also open to the world and featured 300 participants and speakers from Italy, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Singapore, India, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  A transformation is under way and Tam and Kwok are at the forefront of an exciting time for social work in China.  

“In Canada we have over a hundred years of development of social work education,” says Tam. “Our social work program is not perfect but it is very well developed. We have a lot of experience in developing our social service programs and social policy; we have a lot to share. It doesn't mean that ours is the best or the only model. The most important thing is really how we can work together to share our experience.”

The social work profession is largely new in mainland China, in part because the need wasn’t previously as pressing, in a family-centred, agrarian society. While the Chinese government is more open to western perspectives such as social work, the culture and sheer scale of China means that the solutions they will create will be uniquely Chinese. For example, Guangzhou, home of Sun Yat-sen University in southern China, has a population of about 14 million – which is more than the population of Ontario, in a city roughly the same area as Greater Toronto. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, which has a population of around 120 million.  “Think about that,” says Tam. “We would not say that we know better how to handle the situation they’re dealing with. But there is a lot of experience we can share and we can work with them to develop an indigenous social work model and practice in China.” 

Three million social workers needed by 2020

The scale and speed that the fledgling Chinese social work model is being developed is similarly mind-boggling. “In 2010 the Chinese government released a report entitled “Outline of the Mid-Term Development Strategy of Human Resources” that declared they are going to train two to three million social workers by 2020,” says Siu Ming with a laugh, letting the almost preposterous number hang in the air. “They're going to address all the social problems that have been created because of economic development. Because of that, there’s been a huge expansion in social work education.”

Dora and Siu Ming have been involved directly and peripherally since social work education began in mainland China at the turn of the century. One of their former professors from Hong Kong was enlisted to begin one of the first social work education programs at prestigious Sun Yat-Sen University, and she reached out to Kwok and Tam to help. Since then the two have assisted with program development in a variety of ways including education, training and workshops.  They also received research funding from the Canadian Institute for Health Research for their research on domestic violence which helped to foster even more connections. “Through these projects we got to know the local partners, researchers and academia,” says Dora, “and we developed very strong connections that led to a partnership with the South China Agricultural University.”

While working at King’s University College at Western University, Kwok and Tam established student and faculty exchange programs and later developed a “two plus two” program of social work education for Chinese students. The first of its kind degree was split between China and Canada and the student is awarded two degrees, from their home university in China, and the other from King's.

Now at the University of Calgary, the husband and wife team are eager to continue their Chinese research collaborations and to make new connections with the University of Calgary. They maintain strong connections with Sun Yat-Sen University and Siu Ming was appointed as visiting professor (2017-2022) for South China Agricultural University.  “We want to continue to expand our work – bringing our networks, partnerships and research,” says Dora. “Our research agenda is aligned with the University of Calgary’s Strategic Plan as well as the International strategy and also the Faculty of Social Work’s academic and international strategies. It’s a good match and I believe the faculty is happy to have us and we are happy to come here.”

In other news: Dora Tam, PhD, was recently appointed to the Hong Kong Social Workers Registration Board (2017 - 2019) as an overseas assessment panel member. This statutory body is for accreditation of all social work programs in Hong Kong.

Siu Ming Kwok, PhD, was appointed to the Hong Kong Social Workers Registration Board (2017-2019) as an overseas assessment panel member. He was also appointed to the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications as an overseas specialist (2017-2019). This is another statutory body that accredits all college academic programs in Hong Kong.