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Joe C. B. Leung and Yuebin Xu, China’s Social Welfare,

Cambridge, UK, Malden, MA, Polity Press, 2015, 224 pp.
Carine Milcent
Translated by David Buchanan
p. 73-75

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1Written by Joe C. B. Leung and Yuebin Xu, China’s Social Welfare: The Third Turning Point is a book that, within the space of some 200 pages, manages to describe the structure of China’s major institutional developments in “social welfare,” examining them from a historical perspective, as well as within the country’s economic, demographic, legal, and social contexts.

2China’s new social welfare system covers the social protection system and its eligibility (social security benefits and pensions) as well as social services, and their accessibility in both financial and geographical terms. However, it also calls into question the notion of an egalitarian society and the level of economic development required to provide such wellbeing (xiaokang). This term is often associated with terms such as wellbeing, social development, and social policy. According to the definition coined by Elizabeth Segal in 2010 (Social Welfare Policy and Social Programs: A Value Perspective, Belmont, Brooks/Cole), then echoed by the authors: “In a wider perspective, it is the collective response to social problems.”

3The first publications to tackle the issue of social welfare began to appear throughout the 1980s. One of these was Dixon’s Chinese Social Welfare System, 1949-1979, published in 1981 and among the first to provide data on the Maoist era. Other publications would follow throughout the 1990s, such as Cecilia Chan and Nelson Chow’s More Welfare after Economic Reform? Welfare Developments in the People’s Republic of China (1992), in which the authors analyse developments in wellbeing from both a historical and a theoretical perspective, and Joe Leung and Richard Naan’s Authority and Benevolence: Social Welfare in China (1995), which brings to light the disruptive effects that the transition from socialist to market economy had on the social system.

4The present publication examines the development of the Chinese social welfare system since 1949, a development that in recent decades has been defined by both economic factors (such as the marked proliferation and widening of inequality) and demographic factors (the one-child policy and ageing population). It raises three challenging issues that China is currently faced with. The first is the decentralisation of the economic decision-making powers that were established during the process of reform: the central state makes plans and plots out a course of action, while the provinces put the plans into practice as far as their budget will allow. The second challenge is linked to what was until very recently a period of incredible growth for China; growth, which in fact masks extreme wealth inequality between regions, as well as between rural and urban areas: factors that could lead to social instability. One of the central state’s avowed goals is to spread economic growth into areas that have thus far benefited relatively little. The third challenge is the segmentation of Chinese society according to income, which means, among other things, that when it comes to social goods and services, offers via the market must coexist with regulated offers, and their respective levels of quality can vary enormously. Without a certain amount of wealth redistribution, it is likely that society would be forced to divide further still.

5The book is divided into eight chapters. The first is an introductory chapter that presents an overview of changing expectations in terms of social welfare, and puts the subsequent chapters into perspective. In this chapter, the authors propose the terminology of the Confucian welfare state: one built on Confucian values that promote social stability, order as opposed to conflict, collective interests as opposed to individualism, obedience to authority, family obligations, the work ethic, and the importance of education. The second chapter offers a historical overview of the major economic and demographic indicators, and makes the point that the notion of social stability played a central role in the decision-making behind the successive reforms made to the social protection system. In particular, the authors draw our attention to the dismantling of the social protection system brought about by the establishment of a market economy, and the associated repercussions in terms of social welfare. Within this context, the third chapter takes stock of three demographic groups, each with distinct social needs: the two generations of only children, the elderly, and migrant workers. It outlines and comments on a set of economic indicators related to inequality, allowing the authors to set out the ways in which the social protection system could be considered lacking.

6The fourth and fifth chapters set out the history of the reforms that have an influence on the social welfare system in China. Firstly, Leung and Xu make the distinction between social insurance and social assistance. In addition to social insurance for unemployment, work-related accidents, and maternity leave, the authors place considerable emphasis on healthcare programs, as well as the establishment of pensions for the elderly, who account for an ever-increasing share of the population. There are also historically rooted structural differences between rural and urban areas. Because of this, the authors split their presentation in two, focusing first on the evolution of reforms in urban regions, and, in the following chapter, analysing the situation and issues facing rural areas. It’s important to note the increasing role of the position of migrants in the reforms that are taking place. The growing political awareness of the necessity to adapt certain public policies in order to account for migrant populations in cities goes beyond simply monitoring and managing the population, which was the case until recently. A growing preoccupation with the services on offer can now be observed, particularly for medical care and for the elderly. Nonetheless, the statistics put forward by Leung and Xu demonstrate that these reforms are not without obstacles. Throughout the presentation, the complexity of the system is made apparent, attempting as it does to juggle a desire to limit public expenditure while simultaneously providing a social welfare program within the context of the emergence of a competing care market. In other words, the central state is simultaneously promoting greater individual autonomy and a greater diversity of providers (public, private, and mixed), with a view to improving the quality on offer while also aiming to integrate China’s poorest, most deprived people into the system. This double objective – which is complicated enough as it is – is subject to tight financial constraints: the percentage of GDP spent overall on social welfare is determined in advance. And all this is taking place within the context of the decentralisation of the social protection system.

7The sixth chapter examines the various types of retirement and nursing homes. The authors highlight a shift in philosophy: from filial piety as the one and only means to ensure that the elderly are cared for, to the establishment of a welfare state (albeit in limited form and only to be used as a secondary option), combined with the creation of a funded pension system for future generations. Leung and Xu calculate the changes in health and social benefits provided to the elderly, and the social and economic inequalities that these benefits entail, both in rural areas and in cities (financial accessibility, geographic accessibility). In 1978 there were just 7,000 homes for the elderly, housing a total of 100,000 residents. Only the truly destitute, with no other source of assistance, were cared for free of charge. Now, with an ageing population of up to 30% in places such as Shanghai, and extremely varied levels of income, a large number of reforms have been imposed, notably by broadening the apparently inadequate market to include both public and private operators, with a view to improving the quality and quantity of healthcare and social support.

8The seventh chapter is distinct from the others, outlining innovative social management that includes NGOs, independent social workers, and the purchase of services (POS). As the authors point out, the state’s decision-making betrays a stark contradiction between the constraints imposed upon these structures and the political awareness of a real social need for these structures to be more widespread, especially given the ageing population and the need to manage social unrest. This could end up redefining the relationship between two camps that, until now, have always displayed a close interdependence (the financial and the legal).

9As we have seen, the authors provide a detailed account of the series of reforms to China’s social protection system, the development of a market-oriented offers system, and a broad picture of the changing demands of social welfare. Drawing upon a wide array of official sources and scientific articles, the book highlights the reforms’ most significant achievements, including the establishment of universal public insurance, covering almost the entirety of the population. That said, it also reveals a process of fragmentation at work in the social protection system, borne out by the fact that the implementation of reform has been delegated to the provinces (which do not have the resources to match) while the government dispenses political directives and financial support. In their conclusion, Leung and Xu question the future management of inequality and its economic repercussions.

10This robustly researched book will be invaluable to anyone wishing to gain a comprehensive overview of social welfare in China.

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Electronic reference

Carine Milcent, « Joe C. B. Leung and Yuebin Xu, China’s Social Welfare, », China Perspectives [Online], 2016/2 | 2016, Online since 01 June 2016, connection on 26 May 2017. URL :

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About the author

Carine Milcent

Carine Milcent, CNRS-researcher and professor at Paris-Jourdan Sciences Économiques (PSE), has been on assignment at CEFC since 1 September 2014 (

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