In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Welfare in China

  • Introduction
  • Newspapers and Periodicals
  • Reports and Working Papers from International Organizations

Chinese Studies Social Welfare in China
Daniel Hammond
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0144


The study of social welfare in China has expanded enormously in the three decades since “reform and opening” started a series of social and economic processes that have transformed the provision of social goods for China’s population. In China this work touches on a number of interrelated policy areas, including social security (社会保障), social insurance (社会保险), social welfare (社会福利), and social assistance (社会救济), which cover everything from pensions and workplace injury insurance to minimum income guarantees and health provision. Research has broadly served two purposes. First, it provides information describing what has been a rapidly changing set of extremely complex policy areas. Second, it has increasingly sought to go beyond just describing policy and prescribing changes in order to explain why and how developments turned out as they did. At the same time, work on social welfare has taken advantage of increasing amounts of information being made available, opportunities emerging to conduct various types of fieldwork and data gathering, and increased interaction between Chinese scholars and their colleagues around the world. This means that the study of social welfare is now methodologically diverse, building theoretical contributions and engaging with international examples and comparative studies. In the English-language literature, examples are found of collaboration as well as individual contributions from Chinese scholars and scholars from outside China. Studies of social welfare have left behind the broadly descriptive questions of what and when, although there is still a need to update our foundational knowledge and understanding of developments in China. Researchers have now been able to focus more on questions of where, how, why, and who. These more critical studies of social welfare in China both challenge our existing understanding of developments and have helped to begin a more nuanced discussion of what the outcomes and implications of social welfare policy have been and will be in a country as populous and diverse as China. The study of social welfare in China is the provision of both a narrative and explanation of change that affects millions of people. Studies of the period before the 1980s are still uncovering and explaining the overwhelming diversity of what can be understood as social welfare in China, as well as the notable policy continuities that are still felt today. Scholarship addressing developments since reform and opening started has dealt with what has been a broadly pessimistic series of developments where the tendency has been to view the Chinese state as reacting, sometimes very slowly or ineffectively, to the collapse of traditional forms of welfare brought about by the consequences of economic change. This is not to say that the state has not been trying to deal with these challenges, and a great deal of the recent scholarship has addressed the question of how much the state intended certain outcomes, while also teasing out the process of policy change. In wrestling with these extensive changes, the study of social welfare has produced a diverse literature that not only adds to our understanding of particular policy areas, but also of the overall transformation of China over the last hundred years.

General Overviews

The split between pre-reform and reform treatments of the topic is somewhat arbitrary, but it does reflect a division in the relative volume of work produced. Pre-reform work, meaning here up to 1978, tends to fall into the historic divisions of studies of imperial China, the warlord and nationalist era, and the period of the People’s Republic of China preceding reform and opening, covering 1949–1978. There is, however, work emerging that challenges these divisions. Arguably, the reform era that began in 1978 has its own periodization, but with regard to social welfare this has not been particularly influential. Instead, general studies have dealt with explaining and analyzing developments as they emerge.

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