Principal Invistigator: Zhiying Ma, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration

This project examines community mental health (CMH) as globally influenced formations of knowledge in contemporary China. After its decay over the past two decades, community mental health has re-emerged in China since 2004. In the 1970s and 1980s, CMH in China consisted of local experiments praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as models for developing countries. Nowadays, however, it consists mostly of development programs that import global funds, knowledge, and agendas for “community” construction in the country. The “community” to be constructed conjures various social utopias, ranging from an accessible network of primary care that the global mental health movement seeks to scale up, to a space for inclusion and empowerment that the Euro-American recovery movement promotes, and to a radical alternative to the total institution that the global human rights movement advocates. These diverse global forces each must come to terms with the post-socialist state and its efforts to make its governance more scientific, decentralized, humane, and yet pervasive.

Watching the history of CMH in the making, Ma asks: Why has CMH re-emerged in China as the frontline of social development? How do policymakers and development specialists translate forms of global knowledge and make them commensurable with domestic situations (or vice versa), given the diverse and ever-shifting visions and techniques of governance? How do these forms of knowledge shape practitioners’ work of care, and how might new knowledge emerge from this work?

 This study reveals processes of knowledge translation that constitute development programs and health policies. 1) While many scholars have studied global health in “weak” or “failed” states, attending to a “strong” state like China can shed light on processes through which global knowledge is aligned with, appropriated by, and transforms state interests. These processes of knowledge translation then shape what the “social” is in a post-socialist state. 2) This study traces processes of scaling that are central to making global connections. Ma pays attention to how different CMH projects—past or present—define the meaning and reach of a community; how, in scaling up CMH interventions, stakeholders imagine China as a uniform whole or uneven territories; and how programming in China reinforces or disrupts imaginations of world order such as developing vs. developed countries. Given the priority on infectious diseases in global health, the Chinese case also shows how changes of scale can generate political urgency for chronic, non-communicable diseases. 3) This study interrogates how everyday knowledge production may constrain or enable care. Ma does so by examining objects, relations, and infrastructures of care created by CMH initiatives, practitioners’ ethical and social considerations in collecting health metrics or fulfilling program quotas, and any radical redefinitions of knowledge and expertise in program design and practice.