Urban aid served very well-defined targets: China's les misérables. When I began my visits to civil affairs bureaux in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai in the mid-1980s, this was often the first point stressed in official briefings. Welfare services were meant only for the 'three no's', people who had no family, who did not belong to a work unit, and had absolutely no means of livelihood. The narrow scope was not seen as a weakness of the welfare system. It was pointed out that city residents did not need direct state support since all enjoyed the right to work and hence could support themselves and their families. Besides, many work units were self-sufficient in running service amenities. If workers had any personal problems, the danwei (work unit) could probably sort them out too. Residents without employment (like the elderly); or whose work unit did not administer in-house services, could turn to neighbourhood programmes like canteens, reading rooms and nurseries. Finally, the family would not shirk its duty, given the Chinese tradition of respecting the old and nurturing the young. Under the circumstances, only the homeless elderly, orphans and the disabled required special assistance.
Over the years, the tone in which such statements were made has changed. Civil affairs bureaux have become more and more conscious of their limitations. Their work was too narrow. In terms of quality, the services they ran were really not up to scratch. More fundamentally, they were by-passing many people who needed help under the new transitional economy. Without reform, civil affairs aid risks becoming totally irrelevant.
What are the most pressing problems? To begin with, socialist enterprises are facing keen competition with the non-state sector. Many have run aground. The problem of unemployment worsened during the current decade. The number of workers put on short shifts, early retirement, and unpaid leave has grown. Many have drifted into poverty. Yet they do not qualify for state aid, despite the launch of unemployment insurance in 1986. Besides, people working in non-state firms do not get social security, housing and health care at all, unless they are dependants of someone working in a state unit. To reap maximum benefits, many families embrace