Youth work in the Chinese State

Our Director, Dan Moxon was invited to attend a policy seminar on youth inclusion in Beijing recently, that was jointly organised by the EU commission and All China Youth Federation. He offers some reflections on his experiences and the development of Chinese Youth Work in this blog :

"Visiting Beijing, to learn more about their approach to youth work and youth inclusion was certainly an interesting and surprising experience. But ducks head soup and a massive single party state aside, the most surprising thing was how similar a Chinese youth club felt to an European one.  The context for developing Chinese youth work, was well described by one of the speakers as "We have spent the ten years investing in the economy, now we can afford to invest in welfare".
And invest in welfare the Chinese certainly are....over the coming years China will be investing in youth work on a massive scale. Beijing alone, we were told was hoping to develop 1000 youth clubs, 1 for every 10,000 young people. and to staff those youth clubs they are training youth workers - around 8 per club (trained to degree level for the core staff) on a massive scale. All in two years. Think about that for a minute -  1000 youth clubs , 8000 staff, starting from scratch. And that's just Beijing. The rural areas wont have anywhere near the same level of support, but the other cities and mega cities can expect similar amounts - this is huge scale development.

Unlike European youth work , there is no history and context here - the development of youth work and welfare in England can be traced back to the turn of the last century, informed by the faith movement and unformed organisation , going on to albermarle and up to present day.  The role of VCFS organisation in developing and pioneer some of our approaches have been key to the development of youth work over the years, and policy makers from the state have never had a blank slate to work with. This is not the case in China, firstly it was almost impossible to see a VCFS , not in the way we understand it in the UK. The distinction between state youth org  and non state youth, is slightly harder to see when your staff are employed by the state and your members are in the communist youth league. Secondly, without a history of youth work, policy makers are starting from a blank slate (there may well be a history of youth work that I'm not aware of, but it certainly wasn't shown to us by the Chinese presenters.)  Thirdly, without all that democracy nonsense (joke) to get in the way, the efficiency of the Chinese state to role out one size models of welfare designed from the top up was phenomenal.  Non of this testing ideas at the top, kicking it around , and letting local areas implement it in their own way business. There was a plan for developing youth work, and it is happening - fast.

So what does this mean for the youth work on the ground? What does this sort of autocracy do with youth clubs? Surprisingly it looks very similar to the sort of youth work that that radical youth workers in the UK believe we are loosing.  During the conference we visited a number of youth projects and heard from different speakers presenting best practice. This was a youth work based primarily on free association, a safe space for young people to socialise, offering needs based support on a voluntary basis to help people build links in their community and build social capital. One of the projects described its motto as a place to "build a trusted friend circle". This was youth work as a profession, rolling out degree level training programmes for its senior Beijing staff. There wasn't a targeted youth work programme in sight, and no deficit model analysis of young people  - in fact the biggest conceptual driver was Si Lian's work on the Ant Tribes of Beijing  which clearly identifies the problems affecting young people as a consequence of macro economic factors. This was even youth clubs using social media to reach out to participants...... but that's for a different blog entirely 

We also heard about  large scale volunteering programs designed to enable young people to make contributions to their communities and help others and value acting altruistically - there was something interesting about the concept of volunteering that I couldn't quite put my fingers on ... the volunteers we spoke to were very committed, but not driven by the skills volunteering  could develop in them personal, it wasn't about CV development in the way UK volunteering often seemed to be driven by a genuine desire to help and a sense of competitiveness - websites hosted rankings of the top volunteers in Beijing and it was agreat sense of pride being on them (think V volunteering hours on steroids)

I'm still mulling over this, and I'd love to hear people's thoughts..... I'm painfully aware that making a commentary about youth work in a country of billions based on a microcosmic view of a few well chosen projects is flawed at best, and that Chinese political context isn't exactly my subject area. But I'll leave you with an interesting piece of video footage I shot. This was taken in Ginseng School for children of migrant workers (who are often excluded from education) and shows volunteers from the Forest University delivering lessons to the children. Note the reward stickers being given out .... These volunteers travel several hours to support the school but non of them wanted to be teachers in the long term."