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Two profs at forefront as China copes with unprecedented demand for social workers

Dora Tam and Siu Ming Kwok expand University of Calgary's connections as country dramatically ramps up social work education

Siu Ming Kwok and Dora Tam present 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. Some 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.”

Tam and Siu Ming Kwok, PhD, are the latest faculty additions to Social Work’s Southern Alberta Region, located on the University of Lethbridge campus. In Kwok’s neat and sunny office, the husband-and-wife team patiently talk 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 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 10 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 underway 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 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 Kwok 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.”

Tam and Kwok 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 the 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 Tam, “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 program was split between China and Canada, with the student awarded two degrees: one 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 Kwok 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 Tam. “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.”