Understanding Social Policy Divergence in East Asia

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  Click here to access the article.

Radical government responses to social problems have become more noticeable and frequent across East Asia. Rather than suggesting a process of convergence however, the detail of these responses varies considerably and cannot easily be explained by pointing towards contemporary economic changes in the region. While monitoring East Asian social policy trajectories is theoretically important, it also facilitates effective policy advocacy in one of the most dynamic and rapidly changing regions in the world.

There is much talk about the need for social policy researchers to engage in knowledge transfer activities which allow them to advocate solutions for present policy challenges. At the same time however, social policy analysis has a long-standing strength in monitoring and assessing the development of social structures from a more remote historical perspective. Mainly, comparative research designs have been employed to capture the direction and depth of social policy development over the longue-durée, thereby taking into account the unique circumstances that explain policy choices in different socio-political settings. One of the major puzzles that this type of historical social policy research has tried to solve is how we can explain that governments often respond so differently when faced with similar challenges.

Take East Asia, for example. Most commentators agree that policymakers across the region have faced a series of shared internal and external pressures. Globalisation and technological change have resulted in bifurcated labour markets and growing income inequality. Changes in family structures and family life have contributed to low fertility rates and rapidly ageing populations creating significant pressures on discretionary social budgets, particularly for pensions, health and social care. New evidence suggests that policymakers face widespread growing welfare expectations, including calls for higher wages, reduced working hours, and better employment protection. All of this, comes against the backdrop of diminishing rates of economic growth, expanding skills and productivity gaps, and environmental constraints that severely affect social policymaking in the region. So why then are the policy solutions that East Asian governments arrive at so dissimilar?

Most notably perhaps, Mainland China has implemented a range of new social policy initiatives since 2003, including several significant health, social security, and employment policy reforms benefitting rural farmers, internal migrant workers and urban residents. At the same time, Mainland China introduced free compulsory education for all rural and urban children and expanded education services for migrant children and welfare housing for low-income urban families too. These changes resulted in China adopting a much more socially protective welfare system than was the case at the turn of the century.

But Mainland China is far from alone in showing more concerted efforts in actively enhancing people’s well-being. In a series of reforms starting in 2004, South Korea extended its compulsory education system and introduced several measures to make tertiary education more accessible for children from less affluent households. At the same time, South Korean governments recently bolstered the public rental housing system and significantly extended parental leaves, especially for fathers. Together with the earlier introduction of a non-contributory pension programme and the employment insurance system during the 1990s, South Korea has fast become a ‘poster child’ for the international community promoting social development across the Asia-Pacific.

More unlikely candidates have shown considerable progressive activity in social policymaking too. Japan, for example, has been burdened by several ‘lost decades’ of economic development and a rapidly greying society. Still, it managed to raise public investment in its leading public health care system and passed significant legislation to make public housing more accessible. At the same time, Japan increased the replacement income paid to mothers on maternity leave by 2/3 in the 2000s, and by 2016 implemented the most generous paid parental leave policy reserved for fathers of any country in the world.

Meanwhile Singapore, although renowned for its historically cautious approach to government spending, raised public health care spending from 9 per cent of total government expenditure in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2016. The implementation of the Compulsory Education Actin 2003 enhanced the generosity of primary and secondary education, while substantial subsidies continued to support students to attain graduate and postgraduate credentials. Similarly to South Korea and Japan, Singapore also engaged in a significant reform of public family support by increasing the duration of maternity leave to 16 weeks in 2008. With the abolishment of the two children policy, paid maternity leave became available for families with more than two children in Singapore too.

Compared to these other East Asian societies, Hong Kong has increasingly become an outlier. Indeed, Hong Kong has not featured a single social policy reform that resulted in a significant, path-breaking change of its predominant welfare model since the 1990s. Instead, the vast majority of social policy activity in Hong Kong took a more cautious approach and consequently resulted in piecemeal and incremental changes in the status quo.

Despite a great deal of policy innovation in the fields of old-age income protection and unemployment protection, welfare policy in Hong Kong is still characterised by low-benefit levels and a strict ‘work-first’ approach. The introduction of the Mandatory Provident Fund in 2000 was intended to reduce reliance on government welfare provision but has attracted much criticism from those who point towards its low investment returns and inadequate protection of low-income earners. Private health expenditure has continued to make up roughly 50 per cent of total health spending, and together with the underdeveloped maternity leave and public childcare provision continues to present a critical challenge for Hong Kong families. The public housing system – once a hallmark of social security in Hong Kong – has become increasingly strained.

It is the historical approach to studying social policy development that contains the most useful pointers in explaining the divergent social policy trajectories across East Asia. Collectively this literature points towards the role of political cleavages, policy networks and ‘lock-in’ effects of past policy decisions that determine present policymakers’ room to manoeuvre. While often regarded as two separate research approaches, historical comparative and applied social policy analysis should therefore be employed for mutual benefit. It is only by fully understanding the past drivers of social policymaking that we may fully understand the perceived and real ‘perimeter’ of present policy choices and offer effective policy advice to today’s decisionmakers across East Asia.

About the authors

Nan Yang completed her PhD in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York.

Stefan Kühner is Associate Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.


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