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Why China’s Social Workers Struggle to Make a Difference

China aims to make social work a major part of old age care and public health programs, but the field struggle to gain autonomy from the government and attract new talent

Five years after she became a professional social worker, Zheng Yilin decided to call it a day. She used to be passionate about her work with rehabilitating narcotics users in Guangzhou and Beijing, but thought her decision to quit was “for the best.”

Like many children from her native Guangzhou in China’s southeast, Zheng, who did not want to give her real name, grew up watching TV shows from Hong Kong, which depicted social workers in helpful roles such as training released prisoners to reintegrate into society, referring women living with HIV to clinics, and advocating for basic social protection and dignity for migrant workers. “It was from these TV shows that I got my first exposure to sociological discussions and social work. Those ideas were brand new,” she says. “I remembered seeing social workers doing great things for society and helping others, and I aspired to be like them someday.”

After getting her bachelor’s degree in social work in 2012, Zheng started working at a community center in Guangzhou for reintegrating former drug users into society. Her main tasks included pre-release intervention for drug users; making twice-monthly home visits, or sometimes daily phone calls, to check on their case subjects’ well-being and rehabilitation progress; organizing events to dispel public stigma around drug users; and referring her case subjects to counseling, career training, and other services. She also updated the police and community government office on her clients’ progress.

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Why China’s Social Workers Struggle to Make a Difference is a story from our issue, “State of The Art.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Peixuan Xie (谢佩璇)

Peixuan Xie is a contributing author at The World of Chinese. She aspires to make the marginalised voices heard through her writing and has so far touched on issues including feminism, disability inclusion, and HIV stigmatization. Alongside her engagement with TWOC, Peixuan also writes about the gender dynamics of conflict, but mostly she fumbles.

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