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The 16th EASP (East Asian Social Policy Network) Annual Conference was held at the National Taiwan University from 2nd-3rd July 2019.

Over 190 delegates from 16 countries came together in Taipei to discuss the conference theme: East Asian Welfare Futures: Between Productivism and Social Investment. Together, a total of 140 papers were presented in 45 parallel paper and ten panels sessions. Collectively the conference participants covered a wide range of theoretical and conceptual topics relevant to contemporary social policymaking and advocacy in East Asia and beyond. The conference included an increasing number of comparative and global research papers. A growing number of postgraduate students and early-career researchers took the opportunity to share in active dialogue with representatives of the East Asian social policy academy.

The conference commenced with opening remarks by the Chair of the EASP, Prof. Shih-Jiunn Shi, and the Dean of the College of Social Sciences at National Taiwan University, Prof. Hung-Jen Wang. Both speakers warmly welcomed the local, regional, and international conference participants. They also underlined the relevance of the conference theme as the Taiwanese and other East Asian governments consider innovative ways to respond to rapid technological, demographic, and economic changes in uncertain times.

The first plenary session started with a keynote presentation by Prof. Kees van Kersbergen (Aarhus University, Denmark), who provided a wide-ranging overview of the existing literature on the social investment paradigm from a European perspective. Prof. van Kersbergen distinguished between Nordic, Anglo-Irish, Continental, and Southern policy legacies and instruments of European welfare regimes and outlined the specific ideational elements of the social investment paradigm from a life-course perspective on social returns. He then continued by emphasising the historically unique circumstances that resulted in the successful implementation of social investment policies in Nordic countries. He also warned about the necessary requirements if any contemporary East Asian government should try to emulate the Nordic policy example. Successful implementation depends, he argued, on the willingness of East Asian governments to break current electoral cycles and will have to include an update of existing gender assumptions and a new generational contract, as well as a degree of “luck” that no significant economic or political crises will hamper policymakers’ attempts to break existing policy trajectories. Finally, he concluded by highlighting that social investment should not be regarded as a panacea against all contemporary social problems across East Asia: for instance, he stressed that there is now ample evidence that social investment policies tend to benefit middle-class interests primarily, and that they only present partial solutions to the challenges posed by increased migration, rapid technological change, and the digitisation of everyday lives. 

Directly following Prof. Kees van Kersbergen, Prof. Junko Kato (University of Tokyo, Japan), explored the issue of social investment from the perspective of how contemporary welfare states are funding critical social transfers and services. Her starting argument, thereby, was that the financing of progressive welfare policy structures is ultimately conditional on two factors for citizens’ agreement to pay higher levels of taxes: higher expectations and higher trust that welfare state institutions will achieve better social outcomes, especially income equality. For the same reasons, Prof. Kato explained, tax increases necessary to expand social investment policies in East Asian low tax regimes are more difficult to achieve since the welfare expectations of most citizens have – so far – been divergent from those in redistributive, social democratic welfare states. In deliberating these arguments further, Prof. Kato used the example of Japan to show that it can afford to finance social transfers; yet, at the same time, due to weak political support successive Japanese governments have failed to expand socially investive active labour market and education policies. Given the similar tax structures in other East Asian low tax states such as South Korea and Taiwan and the ensuing absence of social trust, Prof. Kato concluded that shifting the focus to social investment policy across East Asia, while maintaining existing social transfers will remain a challenging endeavour for regional governments to achieve. 

During the two-day conference, the parallel sessions were organised in 12 streams focussing on the critical social policy areas including old-age pensions, social care, social assistance, housing, employment, education, disability, family, and immigration. Other panels highlighted recent methodological and conceptual advancements in welfare regime research as well as the proliferation of research focusing on changing welfare attitudes across East Asia. The panels on the first day facilitated discussions about higher education expansion in East Asia, social policy change in the South Korean welfare state, social investment and gender equality in Taiwan, human rights conventions and food banks, and migrant worker employment and migration policies, respectively. 

After a traditional Taiwanese glove puppetry performance specially organised by the conference hosts for the enjoyment of the delegates and the conference dinner in the evening of the first day of the meeting, the second day began with three additional panels on migration policies and governance in South Korea and Taiwan, the changes of the Japanese welfare model during the “lost decade”, and discussions of migration and youth well-being in China and Cambodia, alongside additional paper streams. These parallel sessions concluded in the afternoon for a short tea break in preparation for the second plenary session chaired by the EASP Secretary, Prof. Stefan Kühner (Lingnan University, Hong Kong). 

Firstly, Prof. Mary Brinton (Harvard University, United States) offered an in-depth discussion and an attempt to provide a solution to the puzzle of historically low birth rates across East Asia. Prof. Brinton, thereby, commenced with a critical review of mainstream gender equity theory and highlighted some essential omissions in pointing towards pertinent gender-roles and labour market institutions. Generally, she argued, it is labour markets with strong employment protection for full-time work paired with rigid definitions of men’s and women’s roles and long work-hour norms that tend to negatively affect post-industrial birth rates due to stiff wage and promotion penalties for women. At the same time, however, persistent gender-norms also create pressures for men, particularly for those with low- or obsolete skills, which often have to make do with increasingly low-paid and precarious jobs and, therefore, do not feel morally qualified to support a spouse and children. Focussing on East Asia more specifically, Prof. Brinton concluded that for fertility rates to increase, significant changes are required in labour market structures, workplace norms, and the gendered divisions of labour. For instance, during her research on gender role attitudes in Japan and South Korea, specific workplace practices in large firms, such as e.g. personnel relocation policy, and extended childcare leave, Prof. Brinton identified a particular mix of systems, which has increased employer bias against women and facilitated a gendered division of labour in couples that often live apart from each other for a considerable amount of time. 

The final keynote was given by Prof. Jen-der Lue (National Chung-cheng University, Taiwan). It entailed a personal account of an attempt to implement a comprehensive social investment strategy when he served as Director-General for Social Affairs at Taichung City Government between 2014-18. Prof. Jen-der Lue brought a unique perspective from the angle of a policy entrepreneur but stressed throughout that his ambitious attempts to change existing policies were marred in difficulty. More precisely, Prof. Lue explained that the Taichung government was committed to initiating a social investment shift after broad support during the Taichung mayoral elections in 2014. This commitment resulted in the introduction of subsidised child care and elderly community care programmes, respectively, aiming to increase female labour participation in Taichung. However, to finance these new programmes, cuts were necessary of an existing health insurance premium which was particularly popular among elderly residents of Taichung. This unpopular retrenchment was exploited by the political opponents of the Taichung Mayor in public debates and ultimately resulted in more far-reaching social investment goals having to be abandoned. Prof. Jen-der Lue thus described a concrete example of what Prof. Kees van Kersbergen in his opening keynote described as a ‘‘generational support cleavage” for social investment policies, which presents a considerable challenge for governments attempting to balance short-term electoral costs for longer-term gains.

Finally, Prof. Shih-Jiunn Shih (EASP Chair) and Prof. Stefan Kühner (EASP Secretary) jointly thanked all keynote speakers and attendees in their short closing remarks. Special thanks were expressed to the conference organising team, especially the student volunteers for their work before and during the successful annual meeting. Finally, Prof. Stefan Kühner announced that the 2020 annual EASP conference would take place between 26th-28th June at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He also shared that in an exciting development, the 2020 annual meeting will be held jointly with the Foundation for International Studies on Social Security (FISS). After the collaboration with the Social Policy Association (UK SPA) in 2012, this will be the second time that EASP will collaborate with another international learned society for its annual conference. 

The 16th EASP conference report: East Asian Welfare Futures: Between Productivism and Social Investment