The 6th International Conference of the East Asian Social Policy Network (EASP) took place at the University of Sheffield in July 2009 with over 100 delegates in attendance from across Asia, Europe, Australasia and North America. The international spread of attendees generated a vibrant atmosphere and, with many delegates having travelled straight from the Social Policy Association Annual Conference in Edinburgh that had taken place earlier in the week, discussion was informed by a wide range of theoretical, practical and cross-national perspectives that went well beyond a concern with the specifics of social policy in particular East Asian nations.
The opening plenary round table session, chaired by Martin Smith (Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield), set a broad ranging tone for the event. Margarita Estevez-Abe (Syracuse University, USA) posed the question ‘What do we want to learn from the study of East Asian welfare states?’ She argued that a European bias in the study of welfare – and a Scandinavian bias in particular – had driven the way we think about welfare. There was, she argued, a pressing need for scholars to overcome the regional limitations of research and to give greater attention to welfare arrangements outside of the ‘west’. However, she was critical of how debates about welfare in East Asia had evolved to date, particularly the idea that there is unique East Asian model. Indeed, she offered a bold critique of this view in both her presentation and in a lively debate that followed. Strong debate was all but guaranteed given that another of the speakers at the opening session – the EASP Chair, Jin-Young Moon (Sogang University, South Korea) – used his presentation to argue that there is a unique welfare regime in East Asia that is conceptually distinct from the western regimes identified by Esping-Andersen and others. Prof Moon suggested that social policy in the region features a strong role for the family, moderate market provision and weak state provision, a mix that contrasts with that of any of Esping-Andersen’s regimes.
Bob Deacon (Sheffield University) spoke about the impact of the global economic crisis on welfare restructuring. He began by noting it was difficult to offer firm thoughts at this stage of events, but felt the crisis had prompted a rediscovery of Keynesian economics with the counter-cyclical role of social spending in particular having been reinforced and given greater legitimacy. The crisis had also reinvigorated the IMF and renewed debates about global governance. He felt the emergence of the G20 was of great significance – particularly given its links with regional bodies such as ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) – but noted that other bodies that might be more pro-welfare such as the ILO (International Labour Organisation) and WHO (World Health Organisation) had not gained in power as much as those with an economic/financial focus. Indeed, he noted that while the G20 was strong but with limited legitimacy, the reverse remained true of the UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Committee), despite calls from players such Joseph Stiglitz to boost its status within the UN. Kinglun Ngok (Sun-Yat Sen University, China) rounded off the opening plenary with some observations on China’s response to the economic crisis, noting the scale of its fiscal stimulus – a 2-year package worth some US$586 billion – reflected the global significance of China’s response. However, despite the scale of the response, he doubted it would seriously challenge the dominant neo-liberal inspired frameworks of social policy that had evolved in China in the past thirty years, though incremental changes were already evident
Mari Osawa (University of Tokyo, Japan) had the herculean task of acting as discussant for this opening session and opened the debate about both the nature of welfare in East Asia and the prospective impacts of the global economic crisis to the floor. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, no consensus emerged during this discussion and these two contested themes became a thread that ran through many of the paper sessions that followed.
Streamed panel sessions followed the opening plenary with around thirty papers being presented to panels covering a wide range of topics. The conference as a whole featured ten paper streams:
• Social challenges of the global economic crisis and policy responses
• Income, poverty and social assistance
• (In)equality, inclusion and/or exclusion and social development
• The East Asian welfare regime and relations with other world
• Family and childcare
• East Asian regional politics and national policy
• Ageing, long-term care and pensions
• Urban and housing policy
• Health and disability across the life-course
• Education and social policy
Papers presented in these sessions covered a wide range of cases too, covering China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and many offering broader regional analyses, comparing East Asian nations with western cases or presenting broad comparative analyses the included analysis of East Asian cases alongside a broader consideration of welfare regimes and welfare types.
A plenary lecture by Alan Walker (University of Sheffield) rounded off the formal part of the first day of the conference. Identifying ‘Quality of Life’ as a multidimensional and holistic construct, he discussed the importance of understanding its dynamic multifaceted nature, the combination of life course and immediate influences and the similarities and differences in the factors determining Quality of Life between varying age groups. For its social, environmental, structural and health-related aspects, he then argued that it is time to systematically pursue a comprehensive perspective which should include theoretically driven multidisciplinary approaches as well as empirical findings with regards to the most important components of Quality of Life.
A Conference Dinner followed Alan Walker’s lecture with delegates invited to view a poster session en route that presented details of around twenty works in progress including an EASP driven project to boost the quality and coverage of data about social policy in East Asia.
The second day of the conference began with two more paper sessions – broken by lunch – that were devoted to streamed panels with around twenty-five more papers being presented. Again a wide range of countries, policy areas, theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches featured, ranging from very applied papers on a small scale pilot scheme to support homeless people through work schemes in Taiwan through to broad theoretical pieces on the impact of democratic structures on welfare in Korea.
Kinglun Ngok then delivered the final plenary lecture of the conference. Reflecting on the development of social policy in China he argued that a welfare dualism had characterised provision historically, with a residual system in rural China and an institutional one in urban China and with the right to welfare being based on local residence rather than national citizenship. In the 1990s and early 2000s, however, the prioritisation of economic development had weakened many of the welfare rights in urban China too: a rolling back of the state had occurred with some suggesting China had socialism without welfare.
However, he argued that since 2003 there were signs that the government were ‘bringing the state back in’ as far as social policy was concerned. Two key events occurred in that year: a new leadership took charge of the country and, at the same time, the SARS crisis prompted deep reflection on some of the gaps in policy provision. It was, he said, a moment where change could take hold: a window of opportunity had opened up. A commitment to a ‘scientific approach to development’ and to promote an ‘harmonious society’ came to the fore and a gradual increase in social expenditure has followed, with central government using some of the increased income gained from the economic boom to address some of the weaknesses in its welfare provision. However, he noted there were ongoing tensions between local and central government, the latter remaining poor in comparison to the centre and so restricted in its ability to implement policy reform. Nonetheless, he remained positive about the direction of change, a commitment to ‘rolling forward of the frontiers of the state’ providing a happy contrast to the previous ‘rolling back’.
Following Prof Ngok’s lecture, the EASP Chair, Jin-Young Moon, drew the conference to a formal close, thanking the conference organisers for their hard work and reflecting on how the international nature of the conference had helped deepen our mutual understanding and improve co-operation of scholars from different parts of the world.
To assist with running the conference, EASP were provided with generous support from the SPA’s Small Grants Scheme, how about Taiwanese Association of Social Policy? and from the White Rose East Asia Centre. As some readers will be aware, EASP is less than five years old, having held its first meeting at the University of Bath in 2005. At that time it was a small-scale network being built from the bottom-up by, in the main, PhD students from East Asia studying in the UK. Indeed, the first workshop – also sponsored by the SPA – featured only around a dozen papers. As the Sheffield conference demonstrated, the organisation has travelled a huge distance in a very short period of time since then, a reflection not only of the hard work of its committee members, but also of the growing strength of interest in social policy in East Asian universities and the growing interest in East Asian welfare systems amongst social policy scholars elsewhere.
The 7th International Conference will take place at Sogang University, Seoul, South Korea, from 20th-21st August 2010 – full details can be found online at www.welfareasia.org – and it promises to be at least as lively and engaging as the excellent Sheffield conference.
John Hudson (University of York), Gyu-Jin Hwang (University of Sydney), Junko Yamashita (University of Bristol).