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Social values of welfare: Hong Kong

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2721 words Published: 24th Apr 2017

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Welfare is “all collective interventions to meet certain needs of the individual and/or to serve the wider interests of society may now be broadly grouped into… categories of welfare” (Titmuss, 1959). The development in the social values of welfare has always been changing throughout the centuries, particularly the 20th century. In traditional Chinese society, people used to believed that social welfare, or “fuk lei”, was given by kind-hearted philanthropists in society (N. Chow, 1994, p.325). In the early 20th century, the concept of social welfare was still very weak among Hong Kong people. Majority of welfare services were provided by non-government organizations before 1965 (W. S. Chow, 1993, p. 41). The situation changed after the publication of the white paper of the social welfare in 1965. Together with the rise of social worker, more people consider social welfare is part of their civil rights in the following decades. In 1997, the change in sovereignty of Hong Kong and the Asian financial crisis brought a significant impact on the social values of welfare. In the following paragraphs, I will briefly discuss the development of social welfare in Hong Kong and the corresponding social values of welfare, particularly the changes before and after 1997. As will be argued, there are both long term and short term factors that led the changes. The former would be the increasing consideration of civil rights and the latter would be the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the change in sovereignty of Hong Kong and the publication of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Review.

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In the early 20th century, majority of people considered welfare was given by kind-hearted philanthropists in society. As Hong Kong was a colony of Britain at that time, the colonial government put their focuses on protecting the British’s interest, particularly the British merchants. Hence, the living environment and welfare of local Chinese were not concerned by the colonial government unless it interfere the interest of British. With this colonial background, local Chinese rationalized the concept of “welfare would not be given by the colonial government”. The Chinese merchants “used their wealth to establish and maintain their reputations and leadership roles through acts of charity” (Leung, 1996, p.3). They set up organizations and gave welfare to the locals. Among these organizations, Tung Wah Hospital was the most noteworthy charitable organization which catered the medical services and welfare needs to the locals. Apart from these organizations, churches and clans’ man association would also give welfare to the locals too.

In the post World War II period, the situation had a slightly change. In the post war period, a large number of non-government or voluntary welfare organizations were set up in Hong Kong. It is important to note that most of these welfare organizations had their parent-bodies overseas. A typical example of these organizations would be the Hong Kong Red Cross. “During this emergency period, the internationally-linked welfare organization had probably done much more than the government in meeting the welfare needs of people” (N. Chow, 1994, p.324). Although the concept of “welfare is given by kind-hearted philanthropists” was weaken, “the majority of the Chinese in Hong Kong are still unable to wipe away the traditional notions of welfare and accept the modern idea that it should be the responsibility of the state to provide the necessary social welfare services” (N. Chow, 1994, p. 325). Meanwhile, a large proportion of population was refugee from mainland China (Due to the civil war in China). Part of them considered Hong Kong is there temporary shelter but not their home. Hence, welfare development would not be their consideration as they expected to leave Hong Kong soon. These factors made there were only little pressure groups would fight for the rights for the locals in that period.

The situation further changed after 1965. In 1965, the colonial government published the White Paper on social welfare. N.Y. Chow (1993) suggests that “to be exact, the beginning of social welfare policy of Hong Kong was after the publication of the first White Paper on social welfare in 1965” (p.41). The White paper was the first government document that discusses social welfare policy in Hong Kong. It explained the welfare development and integrated the experiences from the development. Also, it gives the stands of colonial government toward social welfare policy and reasons that made the government cannot implement comprehensive social policy in Hong Kong. Although the White Paper has been blamed for lacking in-depth discussion on the blueprint of social welfare development and the foreseeable challenges, but this White paper gives a foundation for the further development of social welfare system (W. S. Chow, 1993). The concept of “social welfare” and “government” were no longer dissevering like the past. More people started to integrate “social welfare” into the role of government.

The most rapid change was found in the 70s. There were two major factors that led the change, the “Big Bang” of social policy and the rise of social worker. The “Big Bang” of social policy was initiated by the 25th governor of Hong Kong, Murray MacLehose. “After MacLehose take office the governor in 1972, he had a strong sense of responsibility towards social welfare, under his influence, amendment of social welfare policy was necessary” (W. S. Chow, 1993, p. 52). Apart from it, the increasing social problems (i.e. the riot in 1966 and 1967, Corruption) led the demand for government’s involvement in social welfare further increased. These factors urged the publication of the second White Paper of social welfare in 1973. The aim of the White Paper was giving a five year plan of social welfare development and dividing the responsibility in providing social welfare between government and voluntary organizations. The aspects of social welfare in the five year plan included education, housing, medical service, social allowance, youth services etc. The comprehensive expansion of welfare services increased the involvement of people in social welfare system. The value of “welfare would not be given by the colonial government” was further weakening in this period.

Apart from the “Big Bang” of social policy, the rise of social worker also led to the significant change in social value of welfare. The rise of social worker could be traced back to the professionalization of social work and the implement of professional training at the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the mid-1960s. In the 1960s, “Fabian Socialism was the most fashionable approach taught in the social work schools of the two universities” (N. Chow, 1994, p.327). Equality, freedom and fellowship are the central values of Fabian Socialism. The social work students in 60s and 70s were strongly influenced by these values. They had a strong sense of “working towards a more equal and justice society”. Hence, when the students became social workers in society, they would try to advocate policies that achieve to these two ideals. More people would consider welfare as a means to achieve an equal society. Meanwhile, the young social workers at that time also stressed on civil rights. They believed that social welfare is one the important parts of civil rights. When they graduated, they would educate and advocate the public to uphold their civil rights through different social actions. As a result, under this influence, it led to the rise of the awareness of welfare system as rights enjoyed by citizen.

Another significant change of social values of welfare could be found in 1997. The major factor that led to the change is the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Before the crisis, the economy in Hong Kong was at boom. Majority of people were actively investing in property market and stock market. At that time, people emphasized on material values and short-term time horizon. “Material values are the major criterion used to evaluate the worth of things and people” (C.K. Wong, K. L. Chow & K.Y. Wong, 2001, p.68). Meanwhile, majority of Chinese investor were looking for the maximum benefit in the shortest period of time.

Topley states that many Chinese still prefer to invest in non-industrial property and trade because of the relatively quicker return of capital and profits.

When investing in industry, the overwhelming desire of investors is to look for quick profits by whatever means present themselves as attractive in the short run rather than to look for opportunity for starting long-term investment. (as cited in Lau, 1982, p.70)

As both of the property market and stock market were so flourished, the economic environment enabled people to achieve the above goals simultaneously. This in turn led Hong Kong became one of the wealthiest cities in Asia. The living standard in Hong Kong was one of the highest in Hong Kong history in the early mid 1990s. As most people could sustain their life in the market, they put less consideration on the welfare system. At that time, people would consider social welfare system was only for those who were in need in society, like elderly and disabled people. In other words, despite the underprivileged and the corresponding pressure group, majority in society would not care about the welfare system as they believed they could achieve self-sustentions in market. In general, social welfare development was overwhelmed by economic development at that period.

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But a significant change was provoked by the 1997 financial crisis. A great depression in both stock market and property market was provoked by the crisis. Lots of people were bankrupted because of the suddenly fall in the property market. Also, a massive unemployment was accompanied with the economic downturn, particularly in the financial sector. The decline in consumption led to further depression in other non-financial sector. The financial crisis brought two major impacts on the welfare system. First, it led to a significant fall in the tax income of the government. Second, more people fall into the safety net of the welfare system. In other words, it led an increase in demand for welfare services. Simultaneously, it would increase the welfare expenditure of the government. As these two factors happened at the same time, this brought heavy pressure on the financial budget of the government.

At the same period, the sovereignty of Hong Kong changed back to China. One of the problems that foresee by the government is the increase in immigrants from China. In the review report of CSSA that published by the Social Welfare Department, it suggests that the increase in mainland immigrants would lead to an increase application for CSSA. It implies that the government believes that a number of mainland immigrants would rely on the welfare system for livelihood. Before the publication of the report, the government already spread this ideology through news and government press. At that time, the government disclosed different abusive cases of CSSA by the new immigrants. This made the public also be believed the new immigrants would bring pressure to Hong Kong welfare system.

The economic downturn, mainland immigrants, together with the foreseeable aging population, these made the government believed a review for welfare system is necessary. As the government wanted to tighten the budget for social welfare expenditure, the publication of the review report was a means of government to the public support. This report brought a momentous impact on the social value of welfare. In particular, there were more people believed that abusive cases are common in the welfare system after the publication of the report. For example, the report suggested the level of benefits for four-person household is high. The average monthly payment for a four-person household increased in 120% from 1980s to 1990s. But the median wage of workers only increased 41%. The government suggested that this would create disincentive to work and lead to long term dependency on welfare system. According to a survey, 36.4% of respondents believed that “the increasing number of CSSA cases because the criteria for application is too lenient” (C.K. Wong, K. L. Chow & K.Y. Wong, 2001, p.5).

Although the way and method that government used to interpret and present the statistics had bias and hidden agenda, majority still believed that CSSA was breeding lazy people. Since CSSA has a strict income test and asset test, statistics of Suspected Fraud and Abuse was minimal. But the mass media created a negative image of CSSA recipients as they only reporting fraud and abusive cases. This, in turn, created a strong labeling effect on CSSA recipients. In a survey, 40.8% of respondents agreed that “CSSA recipients are not deserved to be help” (C.K. Wong, K. L. Chow & K.Y. Wong, 2001, p.9). This reflected the fact that CSSA recipients were stigmatized.

Apart from stigmatization of CSSA recipients, the role of welfare that interpreted by the public is also worth to discuss. Compare with giving direct welfare, people considered that self-reliance would be more appropriate. In a survey, 70.3% of respondents believed that “people should satisfy their needs through self-reliance”. On the other hand, only 8.6% respondents believed that “people should satisfy their needs through social welfare” (C.K. Wong, K. L. Chow & K.Y. Wong, 2001, p.30). The development of the concept “self-reliance” could be explained by the Utilitarianistic Familism. Utilitarianistic Familism is social values of the Chinese people in Hong Kong (Lau, 1982). Chinese people would put the interest of family member in a higher priority over others. The bonding of the family members was strong. In addition to the extended family structure in the early mid 20th century, people would not look for help from government; rather, they would look for help from family members. As most problems could be solved without the help of government, it contributed to the development a sense of “self-reliance”. This concept is particularly prevailing value hold by the older generation (i.e. Those who born in the Post War Baby Boom).

From the above discussion, we can see two sets of contradictory social values of welfare have developed in Hong Kong. On one hand, more people consider social welfare as their civil rights. On the other hand, people stigmatize some welfare recipients. It makes the rights of accessing welfare become alienated from the civil rights. These two contradictory values lead to different conflicts in society. Social workers, pressure groups and non-government organizations are striving for destigmatization of the welfare recipients. Lots of social actions like social demonstration and public forum are used to promote this civil rights. But at the same time, the government is attempting to marginalize the welfare recipients in order to reduce the welfare expenditure. From time to time, the government would publish the fraud and abusive case in CSSA. It seems that it wants to remind people that “abusive cases are still common in welfare system”. These, in turn, led to never-ending debates between the two interest groups.

As seen in above discussion, it is hard to find a consensus towards the value of welfare in Hong Kong. The historical background, personal experiences and education would have a strong influence on the development of our value. But it seems that government would spread concepts and ideas that deviated from the principles of social welfare – equality and equity, because it’s political agenda. Whether the ultimate goal of government is bring a stable and harmonious society in Hong Kong is questionable.


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