Introduction

The concept of community governance became prevalent throughout the world in the 1990s. Neoliberalist globalization reinforced the spread of this mode of governance in northern developed countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, and in southern developing countries. A general lowering of the quality of life for low income and disadvantaged communities and increasing social risks for the wider population had become evident in numerous cities. A steady retrenchment of welfare provision by the public sector accompanied this (Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Alcock and Craig, 2010; DeFilippis et al., 2010; van den Berk-Clark and Pyles, 2012). The so-called ‘Washington consensus’ was critical in advancing the structural adjustment of developing southern countries, particularly the diminishing role of the state in delivering welfare (Mayer and Rankin, 2002; Midgley and Livermore, 2005). The significance of the role of community in urban governance has thus risen, leading to what is now known as communitarian governance. Here, community participation is emphasized in urban policymaking and implementation, particularly in the provision of welfare services for disadvantaged communities. This emphasis has also proliferated since the 1990s (Forrest and Kearns, 2001; Jessop, 2002; Leitner et al., 2007). Shifting the welfare load from the state to community self-help and/or volunteering activities and sustaining social order through programmes such as community watches are typical examples of the prevalence of this mode of governance (Cummings, 2001; Mayer, 2007; Popple, 2007).

Despite the country's particular social dynamics, community services have also grown in significance in the People's Republic of China (henceforward PRC) since the 1990s (Bray, 2006; Heberer, 2009), though they emerged and developed here along with economic reform in the late 1970s, while ‘innovating social governance’ reform has been developing since the beginning of this century. Community services play a significant part in this reform. The main characteristics are the use of non-state social organizations, the professionalization of community services by employing university graduates including those from social work educational programmes to become community workers, and the purchasing of social work positions or service projects by local governments from social organizations to provide community services.

This study examines Beijing, the capital of PRC, which illustrates the experimentation of community service reform at city level, through the perspectives of social workers working with community service organizations at grassroots level or with social organizations. The latest developments in community services are reviewed, in particular changes in levels of professionalization when university graduates are employed. The implications for the social governance reform are discussed. Beijing is selected as it is one of the first cities to develop community services and community-building initiatives, and as the national capital, it is expected to provide direction and set examples in social work.

Community services in China

Before the economic reform of the socialist economy in 1978, initiated after the Open Door policy and the  fourth Modernization Programme, the welfare of average Chinese households consisted of social provision from ‘cradle to grave’ through state-owned enterprises/work units, or danwei (Sun, 2005). The reform involved state enterprises shedding their welfare responsibilities, which were left to the market, communities and families. This led to a higher level of social inequality, high rates of unemployment and a substantial rise in social risks amongst low-income workers and disadvantaged communities, even though continued economic growth resulted in improvements in various social indicators, particularly the standard of living in middle-income households (Heberer, 2009; Lin and Ko, 2013).

New challenges threatened social stability, and the PRC government explored ways to modernize the public governance system. Significant steps in the reform of public governance included the issuing of the document ‘Decisions Regarding the Strengthening of the Construction of the Governing Capacity of the Party’ in the Fourth Plenum in 2004, which introduced the idea of ‘innovating social governance’ (chuangxin shehui zhili), along with the 17th Party Congress in 2007. The ‘Opinion Concerning the Deepening of the Administrative System Reform’ of the Second Plenum in 2008 declared that the governance reforms would create a ‘service-oriented government’. These reforms included the development of social work as a profession, of NGOs, and the purchase of services (POS) by the government (Leung and Xu, 2015). The major tasks of urban/social governance, according to the Party document ‘Opinion Concerning Strengthening and Innovating Social Management’ issued in 2011, include coordinating different interests and resolving social conflicts, managing the grassroots systems and services and strengthening the social responsibility of non-state economic and social organizations. In March 2013, the ‘Options on Reform and Transfer of Functions of the Organisations’ of the State Council stated that the transfer of government functions involved repositioning the relationship between government, private/market and social sectors, separating the administrative relationship between the government and social organizations and encouraging competition between social organizations (Ibid). The drive to develop social organizations that can deliver public and social services is thus a recent phenomenon in the history of the PRC, as the Communist Party has been keen to maintain control at all levels. The provision of funds by the POS to social organizations is mostly due to these new developments. The pace and extent of implementing POS varies across provinces, cities and districts. The cities that adopt such practices are mainly in the Guangdong province, Shanghai and to a lesser extent, Beijing.

Newly created non-state social organizations are becoming significant in the delivery of social services, but community services have a longer history. After the dismantling of the state welfare provision through work enterprises, community services delivered by street offices (jiedao banshichu) and residents’ committees (jumin weiyuanhui), that is, the ‘community’ (shequ) became more prominent, serving the deprived and disadvantaged. The revitalization of residents’ committees (or community/grassroots organizations) in the development of Chinese community services can be traced back to the early 1980s, when the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) (Minzhengbu) focused on improving urban social welfare and community services. The MCA held two forums on urban community services in Wuhan and Hangzhou in 1987 and 1989, respectively, to facilitate their development (Zhang, 2012). Grassroots organizations were encouraged by the MCA to provide services. The resultant model was called ‘community services’ (shequ fuwu) (see MCA, 1993). Filling the service gap was therefore an intended goal of community services. Preserving social harmony and stability amid social and economic turmoil, through service provision by grassroots organizations was also a reason for the expansion of community governance (Chen, 2008; Zhang, 2012), and developing community services also strengthened the capability of party governance through residents’ committees (Feng and Li, 2003; Lin and Ko, 2013). These committees, though elected by the community and officially classified as ‘autonomous ruling’ (zizhi) organizations, functioned as part of the social management of the party-state, rather than independent civil organizations. They mainly performed administrative tasks assigned by local government departments and various national organizations, such as the All-China Women's Federation, the China Disabled Persons’ Federation and the Communist Youth League.

Community services in the 1980s and early 1990s failed systematically to meet the service demand, and simply took on the role of ‘emergency response’ for those in need. To reinforce the provision of services and the service delivery mechanism, the MCA and academics proposed the idea of ‘community building’ (shequ jianshe), aimed at enabling grassroots organizations to deal comprehensively with community problems. The provision of community services was formally renamed ‘community building’ by the MCA in 2000 (MCA, 2000). The specific aims of grassroots organizations were to develop how communities functioned in relation to community politics, economies, cultures and environment through mobilizing community resources (Yan, 2012).

While the number of migrant labourers (mingong) in the major cities increased as the economic reform progressed, the nature of the communities overseen by the grassroots organizations changed substantially (see Leung and Wong, 2002; Xu et al., 2005). In the housing reform of the 1990s, a new supply of commercial housing units (shangpin fang) became available and wealthy homeowners moved out to new communities. Further diversification meant that traditional communities experienced substantial increases in disadvantaged households and low income migrants, while the new, usually gated, communities became havens for the rich (see Bray, 2006). New types of community organizations, homeowners’ associations, emerged, which were responsible for the property management and maintenance of the new homeowners’ communities. The relationship between the residents’ committees and the homeowners’ associations was complex and often uneasy (Read, 2003). Government-regulated grassroots organizations aimed, however, to mobilize community initiatives through the provision of community services from the outset (Heberer, 2009; Lin and Ko, 2013).

Professionalizing community services by employing university graduates

The aim of the social governance reforms was to construct a ‘service oriented government’, which included the development of professional social work and NGOs and the POS by the government. The social work profession developed alongside the growth in community services from late 1990s, throughout China's major cities (Xu, 2011). In October 2006, it was announced at the 6th National Congress of the 16th Communist Party of the China Central Committee that there was a need to ‘develop a strong social work force, to build an appropriately structured, good quality social work team, which should be seen as a pressing measure if a harmonious society is to build’. This officially placed the development of social work within the national strategy to deal with the social problems caused by economic reforms. A licensing system has been in place since 2008, but no link between licensure and employment in social work posts has been established in the PRC. Individuals with no formal training can be hired as social workers. In Beijing, the Social Work Committee (shehuigongzuo weiyuanhui) was set up in 2007 under the city government which oversees, administers and coordinates the development of social work in the city.

As mentioned, residents’ committees are officially defined as independent organizations, and have historically been used as a tool of governance by fulfilling various demands from different departments and national organizations (Yeung et al., 1999; Fung et al., 2003). The staff are usually less-educated and retired, usually women, and are often recruited from the local neighbourhoods, and therefore have a strong sense of community identification. Residents may perceive that the staff possess insufficient knowledge to provide adequate social services to the community (Chan, 1993; Leung and Nann, 1996; Wang, 1997; Fung et al., 2003). Employing university graduates who include social work graduates at community level can assist grassroots organizations in community service planning and implementation ( Leung and Wong, 2002; CCCP, 2006).

The study

This paper draws from the findings of a case study of community services in Beijing (Fung et al., 2014) which uses qualitative research methodologies, including a review of secondary statistical data, policy documents, agency reports and related journal articles. Eleven social workers were interviewed between 2012 and 2013 to examine recent developments and how social work professionalizes community services. Following the purposive sampling method, the interviewees were referred by university academics teaching community work. The selection criteria included graduates from different social work education programmes and working as community workers in different types of organizations. Their work experience in the community ranged from one to three years. Three worked at community service stations, two in ‘social work affairs offices’ (newly developed non-state social work organizations in Beijing), two were employed by street offices, two directly by residents’ committees and two worked with newly established NGOs who secured their funding by bidding for service projects from various departments. Four community work teachers from Beijing universities were also interviewed. Audio interview records were transcribed, coded and analysed.

Changes in community services in Beijing

Secondary data reveal the historical development of community services in Beijing. As the capital city, Beijing took the lead in launching community service programmes in 1986 (Zhang, 1989; Tang and Wang, 1991), and like other cities, now provides welfare community services to the disabled, the elderly and childless, and mentally ill patients. After the MCA's Community Building proposal in 1991, community development in Beijing gradually became more comprehensive. The pioneering Xicheng District of Beijing was variously named the ‘Experimental Unit for Urban Community Building’ in 1999, the ‘Demonstration Unit for National Community Building’ in 2002 and the ‘Demonstration Unit for National Harmonious Community Building’ in 2009. Assigning ‘experimental units’ or ‘demonstration units’ at street, district and city levels has been widely practised by local governments in PRC when implementing new policy directives, and local variations in service provision are in fact encouraged.

The Beijing government has regarded community building as the ‘foundation engineering for constructing a harmonious socialist society’. Community services are usually organized on three levels: the district government, street offices and residents’ committees. A new community governance model of ‘One division, Three definitions, Two targets (yifen, sanding, liangmubiao)’ has been proposed. ‘One division’ refers to the division of functions between residents’ committees and community service stations. To implement the new social governance model, community service stations were formed since 2008. By the end of 2014, there were 6350 community service stations in Beijing which covered the large majority of communities. The documents ‘Beijing Urban Community Management Methods (Trial)’ and ‘Beijing Urban Management Methods of Community Workers (Trial)’, issued in 2008, state that community service stations serve as ‘one-door service windows’ (yimenshi fuwuchuangkou), which refers to public service platforms under the leadership of street offices and supervised by residents’ committees. The stations are expected actively to provide support to residents’ committees by sharing the functions of public management and charity affairs. Their main function is to provide professional welfare services to the local community. Community workers refer to those who work in party organizations at community level, residents’ committees and community service stations. To professionalize community services, university graduates are targets in community worker recruitment with priority given to those who attain professional status by passing the social work licensure examination. It is also strongly encouraged that those who have been working with residents’ committees but do not have social work qualifications must attain them through re-training and/or formal education. The performance of community workers is assessed by appraisal committees made up of representatives of street offices, government departments at the community level and local residents. ‘Three definitions’ means that the personnel and tasks of, and funds for, the residents’ committees and community service stations should be clearly defined, with a commitment from the city/district government. The ‘Two targets’ are to train professional and high-quality teams of community workers to develop ‘new socialist communities’ (Qiu and Gan, 2012).

Social work into community services in Beijing

As the new urban governance model developed, the community services and social work profession coincided. Social work has been integrated with community building in Beijing through two types of strategy: employment of university graduates, including social work graduates, by street offices/residents’ committees and state purchasing of services from non-state social work organizations (Chen, 2010).

The first strategy reduces university graduate unemployment and increases the professional quality of community workers. The Social Work Committee employs social work graduates who are placed in community service stations, or district governments/street offices hire them directly. A target was set in 2009 to hire 5000 university graduates over three years. In practice, some university graduates work for residents’ committees, as the division of roles and responsibilities between the residents’ committees and community service stations has been far from clear. Staff overlap, and in many cases the ‘in-charges’ or deputy ‘in-charges’ of residents’ committees are also the station heads, so the residents’ committees are therefore managing social workers who may or may not be graduates from social work programmes.

The second strategy, promoting POS, is a key initiative for innovating social governance. It creates the political and financial impetus for the formation of social work organizations, usually by those trusted by the local government, who do not threaten the status quo and are competent in delivering community services. In September 2013, the State Council issued the ‘Guiding Opinion on Government Purchase of Services from the Social Sector’, clarifying the background, objectives, principles, content, mechanism and financial management of POS (Leung and Xu, 2015). In Beijing, these organizations are called ‘social work affairs offices’ (SWAOs) (shegong shiwusuo). Numerous SWAOs have been created in Beijing since 2010, and by August 2013, fifty-nine social work offices had been established in sixteen districts and counties. These offices employ about 400 full-time social workers, providing social services for the elderly and disabled, caring for the psychological health of adolescents, organizing community cultural activities, serving the migrant population, maintaining social stability, etc. (Beijing Social Building Net, 2003).

POS is implemented in Beijing in various forms. A seed fund of RMB50,000 (roughly US$7000) for each newly registered ‘social work affairs office’ has been offered since 2010. Similar to cities such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province, the ‘purchase of social work positions’ (goumai shegong gangwei) strategy has been used in Beijing. About 140 positions are purchased each year, and social workers hired by SWAOs are assigned to community service stations in various districts and counties. SWAOs that qualify can bid for positions, and are responsible for recruiting social workers, deploying them to community service stations and providing professional support. There was an experiment of ‘one street, one social worker’ (yijie yishegong) in some districts where one social worker from SWAOs were placed with one street office but official statistics about the implementation has not been available. Under the principle of ‘one office, one supervisor’ (yisuo yidudao), each SWAO is also funded to employ social work supervisors, who usually have substantial experience in social work services, or are teachers from universities. They provide regular supervision and guidance to front-line social workers (Wang, 2012).

In addition to the ‘purchase of social work positions’, funding for community services is provided through the ‘purchase of service projects’ (goumai xiangmu). For example, in Xicheng district, a number of funded SWAOs provide services for young people, older people and those with disabilities. They must identify service locations and collaborate with various street offices, government departments and social organizations in the community.

University–community partnerships

Universities play a significant role in professionalizing community work in Beijing. POS has mainly developed in large cities, and university faculty, particularly social work teachers, have played a key role in the process either by establishing their own SWAOs or developing close partnerships with other offices. This can be mutually beneficial, with universities providing the SWAOs with experts, professional training and guidance for social workers, student volunteers and even equipment and facilities. SWAOs provide the field for social work placements and research studies. This model of university–community partnership has, however, been controversial in the PRC, as it may lead teachers to run the organizations for their own financial benefit, exploiting the manpower of students and university resources. There is a lack of community expertise, so university teachers are the most knowledgeable professionals in this area, and as such are key to the state's intention to develop social organizations and share the responsibilities of providing public and social services. Social work teachers interviewed were of the opinion that city governments must rely on universities and teachers to develop social organizations and social work at this particular stage, as they are under pressure to implement the new community governance model.

Issues and challenges of professionalizing community services

Interviews with social workers within grassroots level community services revealed various issues in the process of professionalization. The directive to professionalize community services in Beijing by employing university graduates has been challenging. The issues may be similar to those of other cities, but their manifestation and the responses of local government are unique. The high turnover rate of community workers, insufficient funding to hire social workers, unclear roles of social workers and the lack of professional autonomy are critical issues.

To attract university graduates, an incentive granting Beijing ‘hukou’ (resident registration of Beijing) to new recruits of community workers was implemented in 2009 for a three-year term, on the condition of continued employment for one year (later two years). The status of ‘hukou’ is critical in determining individual welfare in the PRC, so this entitlement has proven to be a key attractor for university graduates from other areas of China. However, it also accounts for the high turnover rates of social workers in the area of community work, as once the ‘hukou’ is secured, many leave their positions for other better social work roles, or simply change career. Six of the eleven interviewees indicated that the Beijing ‘hukou’ was the reason they took a job in community work.

I have to stay in my present job because I need to work here for two years in order to get the Beijing ‘hukou’. This is very important because it is critical to migrant workers who need housing. (Social worker 3 working at a community service station)

I can only take an examination to apply to become a civil servant at central level after getting a ‘hukou’ of Beijing and with two years’ work experience. ‘Hukou’ is usually required for it. (Social worker 5 working at a community service station)

I don't want to go back to my hometown because people live and die there without any strong drive to move up. My mother also wants me to stay in Beijing because she believes that there are more opportunities and better living here. Getting a ‘hukou’ is therefore my goal in the coming few years before I can plan for my future. (Social worker 8 working with a street office)

An interviewee vividly described the serious impact of turnover:

This is a stepping board. Many of this batch of social workers have left, some moved to private companies, SWAOs or state-owned welfare units. In fact, the street office did not require us to sign any employment contract because turnover has been quick particularly after securing the Beijing ‘hukou’…I myself will leave after fulfilling the two-year condition. (Social worker 10 working with a residents’ committee)

The practice of granting ‘hukou’ was cancelled in 2011 due to a large proportion of university graduates quitting community work positions after getting the ‘hukou’.

Very few social work positions were available in the early 2000s, so the choices for a professional social worker were limited, another reason cited for entering community work.

When I graduated, I thought I was not different from other university graduates and I took various public examinations in order to become a civil servant. The recruitment of social workers was extremely rare at that time and community workers were the only occupation that recruited professional social workers…after all, this is my profession. (Social worker 10 working with a residents’ committee)

Many of the interviewees said that after accumulating work experience, they planned to move to state-owned welfare units, which offer higher salaries and better benefits in more stable jobs, and in the longer term they would strive to become civil servants.

Through the purchase of social work positions or service projects, SWAOs have managed to hire social workers, but the funding support has been far from adequate. For example, local governments only provide RMB30,000 per year for one social worker position. No additional financial support for the operation of services and administration is provided, so the salaries of social workers have to be reduced and other allowances such as housing subsidies and other social insurance cannot be covered, resulting in low pay and poor benefits for social workers. For example, the monthly salary of the interviewees was between RMB1500 and RMB2500 when the average monthly income of Beijing was around RMB5500 in 2012 and 2013. A high turnover rate therefore results (Chen, 2013; Zhang et al., 2013). All interviewees complained that their salaries were extremely low, below that of social workers working in state-owned welfare units such as elderly residential homes, and below the average Beijing salary. Sustaining their basic living needs is their main concern, and they considered themselves disadvantaged in their occupation and in the city.

The roles of social workers and the nature of social work have not been made clear in community building. Gaining the understanding of street office personnel and residents’ committees is critical, as most social workers, whether employed by the Social Work Committee or SWAOs, must work closely with them and may in fact be directly employed by street offices. The heads of community service stations are usually also in charge of the resident committees, and they assess the performance of social workers. Facing immense workloads in community governance and fulfilling demands from different government departments, these grassroots organizations welcome social workers, but treat them as additional administrative or programme staff. The phenomenon of social workers being ‘administratisation’ (xingzhenghua) as happened in Shenzhen (Hung et al., 2010), for example, is also happening in Beijing (Chen, 2013). They are effectively treated as additional manpower to existing community workers and largely perform the same tasks (Zhang et al., 2013). In this study, interviewees described their main tasks as helping residents’ committees fulfil their day-to-day functions, such as organizing large-scale recreational or cultural activities; administrative work; giving out pensions to elderly residents; writing up work proposals, preparing paper and statistical reports, managing volunteers, organizing computer classes for mid-level management staff and interest classes for the community, home visiting to assess eligibility for low-income protection or implementing birth control and organizing community services such as hairdressing for older people. Their comments on their role include the following:

There is a saying among mid- to old-aged women workers (da ma) of the residents’ committees that ‘you do the brainwork; let us chase the physical work’ which means all the reports and proposals are to be prepared by university graduates. (Social worker 1 working at a community service station)

My duties are assigned, not out of my choice. (Social worker 2 working in a SWAO and is placed with a residents’ committee)

There are so many assignments that we do not have autonomy. (Social worker 5 working at a community service station)

What I do is the miscellaneous, making tea and pouring water for the leaders … chaotic and sporadic indeed. (Social worker 8 working with a street office)

Basically, there are not any differences among the five of us working for the residents’ committee though I am the only professional social worker…The residents care more about your work experiences rather than whether you have studied social work…I tried to organise activities with social work elements but the in-charge and party secretary thought that it is not practical…the administrative work of the residents’ committee is overwhelming. People perceive us as under the government rather than an autonomous organisation…There is no use explaining that I am a social worker…I have not performed any social work tasks at all. I always think that I am the extended arm of the government. (Social worker 10 working with a residents’ committee)

Two interviewees (Social workers 3 working at a community service station and Social Worker 11 working with a residents’ committee) were confident that their tasks could demonstrate the differences between social work and non-social work. They gave examples such as organizing support groups for elderly people with dementia and stress management courses for doctors and nurses working in hospitals. They thought that the residents could tell that the quality of services they provided was much better than that previously administered by the residents’ committees.

All those coming to us are the old, frail, ill, disabled and children. It requires the application of theories and skills to handle their emotions … I emphasise residents’ participation and purposively nurture residents who become the core rather than delivering activities occasionally, not like what the residents’ committee has done. (Social worker 11)

There was, however, pressure from colleagues:

They don't want to see groups formed and they don't understand why organising residents into groups is important. I talked to those who have studied social work and they understand it well…The more you clarify, the more they mistrust you. (Social worker 11)

The principle of ‘One Division’ declared that residents committees and community service stations are in principle separate entities, but the former has in reality imposed tight controls on the latter. The professional autonomy of social workers working with grassroots organizations is a major concern. A few interviewees also talked about strategies to overcome ‘administrat-isation’, and the relationship with da ma when working with residents’ committees which was considered critical to the level of professional input they were able to give to community services. Social workers who were working in community service stations stated that:

It is better to develop good relationships with in-charges and da ma of residents committee because we need to request information about residents from them. There are places where residents’ committees and community work stations work completely separately, particularly when those in-charges of residents’ committee and station heads hold different views. (Social worker 3 working at a community service station)

At the beginning, there were conflicts with the residents’ committee. They did not know what these young people (social workers) come for and complained to leader-cadres against us. After the change of personnel of the residents’ committee, we have been getting along well. It all depends on the attitudes of the party-cadre and in-charges, but in general they prefer less than more work. After all, we still need to request for resources support from them. (Social worker 5 working at a community service station)

The in-charge of the residents’ committee is very senior and she doesn't understand social work, nor does she respect you. She scolded you loudly .. very poor quality indeed. But she is the one who arranges my work. (Social worker 8 working with a street office)

As a consequence of the high staff turnover rates caused by low salaries and few opportunities to practice social work, SWAOs are relaxing their requirements when recruiting social workers, and including more applicants from different educational backgrounds and those who have not studied social work. The concern is then regarding the quality of services these offices can provide (Chen, 2013).

Conclusion

In this study, Chinese community building and community services are described and explained, using Beijing as an example. ‘Linking up the three ‘socials’: the community (shequ), social organizations and social work profession’ is considered unique to community building in Beijing (Zhang, 2015). Despite the implementation of various strategies to professionalize community services and promote community building in Beijing, there are many challenges in the areas of social work manpower, the definitions of roles and responsibilities of social workers as different from community workers who are residents, and funding support for services and manpower. The issue of university teachers running social work organizations that receive funding from the government is also controversial. As the Beijing government is inclined to use social work to raise the quality of community services, social work teachers interviewed have proposed different strategies, including strengthening the input of knowledge and skills of community practice in the social work curriculum. Other suggestions include clear definitions of social work roles and functions in the community, improving work conditions and increasing salaries and greater investment in POS. They also expressed a need to segregate the duties of community governance and the provision of community services, with residents’ committees mainly responsible for the former and community service stations for the latter. One or two social workers are usually employed in each station, and this should be increased to build up a team and create a clear division of labour within community work stations.

Issues of social work professional development and community services in China are clearly now linked. Under the directive of central government, social work is a rapidly developing profession, but it is as yet under-recognized in the community and among political leaders of different levels. Many community workers do not have social work qualifications, and have not passed the central social worker licensing examination. The future professionalization of community services in Beijing, or the emergence of a separate community work profession, depends on the commitment of the city government to provide resources for the development of social work in line with the Beijing strategies to strengthen community services.

Communities in Beijing, similar to other large PRC cities, have been subject to a growing number of complexities, due to rapid social changes. Increasing diversity means that residents include the unemployed, migrant families and middle class homeowners. Community governance is a key method for the party-state to ‘manage’ communities for political and social stability. The rise of social organizations, mainly SWAOs, has added new players to the community scene, who are expected to improve service quality and community integration amidst increasingly conflicting relationships, such as those between the migrants and locals (those holding ‘hukou’), the poor and the rich and homeowners and residents’ committees and/or estate management companies. The roles and relationships of these different players are critical to community building. Social workers in Beijing working at the grassroots/community level, and in other parts of China, are expected to provide quality community services as part of the community governance structure, to enhance the stability of the community. This small-scale research study reveals that the achievement of both these goals has been constrained by many factors. Community work or community building, which globally involves the goals of empowerment and political influence, has different features in the PRC. While Chinese characteristics should be recognized, and are dependent on the unique political, economic and social/cultural national context, the potential of community services delivered by social workers to contribute to social changes is recognized by many within the profession, as borne out by the opinions of the interviewees.

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Author notes

*
Chen Shu-qiang is Professor/Executive Deputy Dean, School of Social Work, China Youth University of Political Studies
*
Fung, Kwok-kin is Assistant Professor, Programme Director, Department of Social Work, Hong Kong Baptist University and Board of Directors, International Association for Community Development
*
Hung, Suet-lin is Associate Professor and Associate Head, Department of Social Work, Hong Kong Baptist University.