China’s next top model?

Can the Nordic welfare model help China take care of its ageing population and unprotected workforce?

This is the question that Professor Pauli Kettunen of the University of Helsinki and researchers from twenty other Nordic and Chinese universities in the Sino-Nordic Welfare Research Network (SNoW) are trying to answer.

“The Chinese economy has seen explosive growth, but the country’s social security and welfare system lag badly behind. This is leading to serious consequences, which is why China is actively seeking models that can help deal with the social challenges facing the country,” explains Kettunen. “The ageing population and the huge mobile workforce are the most urgent issues.”

“China’s one-child policy has made it more difficult to care for the elderly. The Chinese tradition of children looking after their parents does not work well in the modern labour market. Many people move from the countryside to bigger cities in search of jobs and can no longer take care of their parents who stay behind.”

China is moving towards universal welfare – the Nordic countries are backing away?

Kettunen emphasises the different meanings given to migrant workers: in the Nordic countries the term often refers to immigrants, but in China it is used for the large group of citizens relocating from the countryside to cities. The number of Chinese migrant workers shot up from 15 million to 211 million from 2003 to 2009. Today it is estimated to stand at some 260 million.

“Currently, Chinese citizens registered in cities have access to better welfare than those in rural areas. However, it is extremely difficult for migrant workers to get registered in their new home town. They fall between the cracks.”

“One solution would be to make welfare services accessible to all, wherever they live. According to our Chinese research colleagues, China is taking cautious steps towards a universal welfare model of this type,” says Kettunen, who finds it tragicomic that the Nordic countries appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

Nordic values exported

According to Kettunen, the Chinese researchers have a very pragmatic approach and know exactly what they want to gain from the welfare cooperation with their Nordic colleagues. They wish to develop models that can solve the problems described above. But what do the Nordic researchers hope to get out of the collaboration?

“Knowledge exchange works in both directions. Not only do we learn more about the Chinese structures but also discover new perspectives on our own welfare model. We can, for example, examine how the Confucian legacy has influenced the Chinese system with reference to the mark left by the Lutheran tradition on our Nordic welfare system,” says Kettunen, adding that Chinese researchers generally know more about us than we about them.

As Kettunen points out, the welfare policy that a country of China’s size opts for is also of great interest to the rest of the world.

 “Of course the Nordic countries and Europe hope to influence welfare policies around the world and promote the principles of openness and democratic values. Our network is a very concrete example of such a will,” he concludes.

Further information about welfare issues in China and the potential solutions the Nordic model can offer can be found in the recently released Reshaping welfare institutions in China and the Nordic countries. The book was published in English by the Nordic Centre of Excellence NordWel and in Chinese by Fudan University Press.

The future of the welfare state will be discussed at ThinkCorner and in social media (#hyvayhteiskunta) in October and November.

The website for “Good society 2100” (in Finnish)

The full programme for “Good society 2100”