Social Work in Hong Kong: Interview with Dr. Terry Leung

Hong Kong

Each time I have a conversation with a social worker or social work educator, the narrative tends to sound the same no matter where they are located. In Hong Kong and Mainland China, social work is one of the fastest growing professions.

When I was working in Child Protective Services, an Asian film company came to my agency to document practices in the United States. It appears they were looking at the US model for possible implementation in their country, and this made me more curious about what social work looks like in Asia.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Hong Kong has become a more unequal city over the past decade, according to new government figures. The city’s wealth gap now outstrips that of Singapore, the United Kingdom and Australia as well as other major cities notorious for inequality such as Washington and New York City, says the Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department. In 2011, the city’s Gini coefficient—an index from 0 to 1 that measures the wealth gap—rose to 0.537, up from 0.525 in 2001. It’s a figure that exceeds various estimates even of inequality across the border in mainland China. Read Full Article

Recently, I had a conversation with Dr. Terry Leung who is a social work educator at the Chinese University of Hong Kong where she is also a program director in the Department of Social Work. Dr. Leung was willing to share her knowledge about social work practice in Asia specifically in Hong Kong.  Although the social work profession in Asia is growing at a great pace, social workers are also facing great challenges. Here are Dr. Leung’s responses to my questions about social work education and practice in her country.

SWH: Can you tell us about your background, and what led you to choose social work as a profession?

Terry: I started my career as a social worker in Hong Kong in the 1980s. At that time, Hong Kong was still a British colony, enjoying rapid economic growth that allowed great stride in welfare service development. When I was fresh from college, social work was attractive to me as a relatively new profession. It promised the opportunity for new and creative ventures for meeting the changing social needs. I worked with young people in Hong Kong for twenty years before I started my second career as a social work academia. I am now teaching Social Work in the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

SWH: What is the mission and role of social work in your country, and how are social workers utilized?

Terry: A note is necessary when talking about social work in my country. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China under the principle of “one country two systems”, after the return of its sovereignty to China in 1997. Social work in Hong Kong has started its development since the 1970s with the support of the colonial government. In Mainland China, social work was accepted as an academic discipline in the 1980s, and recognized as a profession only in recent years. Given the different legacy and dissimilar socio-political circumstance between the regions, the mission and role of social work in Hong Kong is not exactly the same as that in the rest of China.

Dr. Terry Leung
Dr. Terry Leung

Let me talk about Hong Kong my homeland first. According to the Hong Kong Social Workers Registration Board (a statutory body for monitoring the quality of social workers in Hong Kong), the mission of social work is to help people in need, and “to promote, maintain and enhance the well-being of individuals, families, social groups, organizations and communities” by strengthening relationships among people (Code of Practice for Registered Social Workers, Hong Kong Social Workers’ Registration Board.

As in other parts of the world, social workers in Hong Kong mediate between individuals and their environment in their strive to prevent and relief individual hardship and suffering, address social problems, and advance social justice. Social workers in Hong Kong worked in both governmental and non-governmental organizations. They engage in a spectrum of services including family and child welfare services, services for young people, services for the elderly, services for people with disabilities, services for offenders, medical social services, and community development services.

The social work community in Mainland China is represented by the China Association of Social Workers. The objective of social work as stated by the China Association of Social Workers is to provide services to those who are poor, weak, sick, and physically and mentally disabled for getting them out of problems. “Helping people to help themselves” is an important tenet of social work in Mainland China. Whilst Hong Kong follows the Western liberal democracies to emphasize social justice as an important value of social work, the social work community in Mainland China highlights “social management” (maintaining social order and stability) and policy enactment as the key responsibility of social workers. Social workers in Mainland China are deployed in a wide range of public services, from civil affairs to the judiciary system, and from youth and women service units to the People’s Liberation Army.

SWH: What are some of the similarities and differences of social work education in Hong Kong from the Western World? 

Terry: The social work curriculum in Hong Kong largely follows the global social work education framework. It emphasizes the value base of social work, with core courses covering social work theories, social welfare system and social policies, human behavior and social environment, as well as social administration and management. Field work practicum is also an important component of the social work curriculum in Hong Kong. The social work curriculum in Hong Kong has more similarities than differences when comparing with the Western world.

In Mainland China, the social work curriculum also includes theoretical knowledge, professional values, and direct training in practice skills. But as Yan & Tsang (2005) observe, the social work curriculum in Mainland China is largely confined within the ideological and political parameters of the Chinese Communist Party. Social work being a newly developed occupational terrain, universities operating social work training in Mainland China often have difficulty locating suitable venues for field work practicum. Neither can experienced social work practitioners be easily found for coaching the social work students.

SWH: Who are some of the social work pioneers that have helped shape social work in your country from its conception to present day?

Terry: Philanthropic organizations providing welfare services in Hong Kong before the 1960s were pioneers laying a significant foundation for social welfare development in Hong Kong. Enactment of social work education in Hong Kong owed to Eileen Younghusband from Britain, who, in 1960, advised the then colonial government of Hong Kong on the development of social work training in the territory.  Based on Younghusband’s report, social work education developed in the major universities in Hong Kong since the 1960s.

In Mainland China, early attention to social work was drawn by Lei Jiequong, a renowned sociologist who documented civil affairs as “social work with Chinese characteristics”. This connection of social work with civil affairs helped to secure the support of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Civil Affairs to inaugurate social work training in Mainland China in the 1980s. Meanwhile, social work educators and practitioners from Hong Kong played a significant role in supporting the training of social workers in Mainland China. Noticeably, in the southern city of Shenzhen (which is adjacent to Hong Kong), experienced social workers from Hong Kong took part in a “supervision purchase scheme” financed by the Shenzhen municipal government to coach the newly hired social workers in the city.

SWH: What are some of the current challenges and barriers social workers in your country face, and what are your hopes for the future as the profession continues to evolve?

Terry: There are invariably a lot of challenges that social workers in Hong Kong and Mainland China have to face. To name just a few, we are encountering rapid social changes with an ageing population, changing family structure, and increased exclusion of the marginalized population from social and economic participation. Social workers have to be strategic and creative in order to deal with these challenges.

Meanwhile, in the current encroachment by managerialism, social workers are pressurized by the increasing demand for quantitative outputs, which often diverts their energy from quality intervention to the pursuit of numbers. Apart from the challenge of rapid social change and pressure for outputs, social workers in Mainland China also have particular challenge in the novelty of social work as a profession. It has yet to gain recognition from the general public and to negotiate for its occupational mandate with the bureaucracies. Despite all that, I think the social work community in Hong Kong and Mainland China is vibrant enough to confront the challenges.


Published by

Deona Hooper, MSW

Deona Hooper, MSW is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, and she has experience in nonprofit communications, tech development and social media consulting. Deona has a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Management and Community Practice as well as a Certificate in Nonprofit Management both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. View all posts by Deona Hooper, MSW

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