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Chinese Embrace Volunteerism

A helping hand for Olympic tourists, a wary eye on political dissent  Aug 18, 2008

BEIJING--The Beijing Olympic Games have created a wave of volunteerism involving more than 1 million people, including those not registered as official volunteers. The trend, which has been featured in a number of local magazines, is said to include some people who are concerned about public safety and others who just think their volunteer experience will give them an advantage in finding a job.

On Sunday, Du Dechuan, a 21-year-old student at Beijing University, was working as a volunteer for the team table tennis matches held at the university's campus.

Directing tourists at an information counter, he said, "I wanted to be of service, as this is an important event for China."

Meanwhile, near the main National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, 23-year-old graduate student Guo Wei was working as a volunteer Japanese-language interpreter. "I want to help China to become better known in the world," she said.

Guo said she was emotionally moved when she heard about people her own age who had worked as volunteers in Sichuan Province after a major earthquake struck the region in May. The young volunteers rescued people and provided psychological support to the families of quake victims.

"I understood it was important for us to help each other," Guo said. "I wanted to do something to help people."

More than 1.12 million people applied to work as volunteer interpreters or to direct tourists at Olympic venues. Of 75,000 people from 98 nations and regions who have been listed as official volunteers for the events, 98 percent are from the Chinese mainland. Among the remainder, 11 volunteers are Japanese.

Aside from the event volunteers, about 400,000 people are working at 550 service centers outside the event venues.

Meanwhile, more than 1 million people are said to be involved in related volunteer activities, but are not registered as official volunteers with the Beijing Olympic organizing committee.

That figure includes those working for public safety in the Chinese capital. Their mission is not assisting tourists, but preventing crimes and monitoring political activities on behalf of the regular public safety authorities.

On the walkways near Tiananmen Square, volunteers of this kind wearing red caps and polo shirts can be found every few dozen meters. The Chinese characters on their shirts read, "Volunteers for public safety in the capital."

Of them, Chen Shuqin, 67, stands in the exhaust fumes and extreme summer heat from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., directing tourists. Wiping sweat from her suntanned face, Chen said: "Making the Olympics successful is the ardent wish of the Chinese people. I'm happy to be of any help."

Volunteers such as Chen are directed by members from each local residents committee in Beijing. A card that directors of the local committees wear around their necks shows six rules.

One rule, for example, requires that they report to authorities whenever they notice a suspicious person, with suspicious gatherings covered by another rule.

One of the volunteers said, "I'll call police quickly whenever I find people who would promote political issues, including Tibetan independence."

They do not distinguish between directing tourists and serving as watchdogs--all that matters is that they volunteer.

Advantageous for getting a job

Quite a few university students have participated in the Olympics as volunteers, believing that it's advantageous for getting a job in Beijing, where the employment situation is bleak.

A 23-year-old female student working as a volunteer at an Olympic site said, "I'm sure I will be asked whether or not I have experience as an Olympic volunteer at a job interview next year."

In China, private grassroots organizations have been unable to grow because the Chinese government strictly controls such groups, ever alert to the possibility that they could become involved in political movements.

The student volunteers at the Olympics seem to have been "called up" by the youth organization of the Communist Party rather than getting involved on a truly voluntary basis. Behind the Chinese government's open support for the Olympic movement, there seems to be a policy of encouraging national unity and promoting the image of China as a democratic country at home and abroad.

Reports that volunteers in the aftermath of the big earthquake in Sichuan Province were praised as heroes just before the Olympics seem to have helped trigger the volunteer boom.

A Chinese magazine carried an 11-page supplement titled "First Year of the Volunteer Era." The article described volunteer activities in the aftermaths of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the disastrous U.S. hurricanes of 2005. The article also encouraged Chinese people to continue volunteer activities even after the Olympics.

However, there are strict restrictions on Olympic volunteers' words and actions. We asked many volunteers what they thought about the recent series of terrorist incidents in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Almost all refused to answer, saying, "I can't say anything about it."

"We're prohibited to speak about anything related to politics," one volunteer confessed.

She explained that volunteers had been told to answer, "I don't know," if they were asked about political issues by members of the overseas media at a briefing session by the Beijing Olympic organizing committee in June.

The person in charge of the committee reportedly reminded them not to answer, saying, "We are afraid that your personal opinions will be reported overseas and cause misunderstandings."

"Our volunteer activities are different from free activities overseas," said the volunteer, with a resigned look.

Linguists appreciated

Meanwhile, the activities of multilingual Chinese volunteers are welcomed by foreign tourists in Beijing.

Kevin Dose, a 23-year-old German volunteer who studies in Beijing, said multi-lingual Chinese volunteers working at the Olympics often enthusiastically ask to assist people when they see someone in need of help. "[The volunteers] are all working with enthusiasm," he added.

Sayaka Omachi, a 23-year old Japanese volunteer, said she had not heard about or seen volunteer activities in China until June, when she graduated from a Beijing university. She was surprised to learn that a lot of people are working at the Olympics without pay.

A 39-year-old tourist from Brazil walking along Beijing's Wang Fu Jing Street--the city's busiest shopping and amusement area--said: "Because we can't understand Chinese, and most people in Beijing can't speak foreign languages, volunteers are a great help to us. A large number of people are taking part in volunteer activities and I think it's a very nice project."

A helping hand for Olympic tourists, a wary eye on political dissent
A guard flanked by a volunteer directs journalists coming for media coverage / Getty Images

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