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August 2008

The Yin and Yang of China’s Olympic Volunteers

By Susan J. Ellis

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As always, the word “volunteer” will be getting much use in mid-August during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing (http://en.beijing2008.cn/volunteers/).  There have been many stories already about the special effort the Chinese authorities have put into recruiting and deploying an estimated 1.7 million people into volunteer roles.  One good example of the press coverage appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on July 17th with the headline “For Beijing's Olympic Volunteers, the Rules are Many” (http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0717/p04s01-woap.html).  

The article begins:  “Ms. Cai, crisp and efficient in her bright blue Olympic volunteer shirt, has a list of instructions to remember.”  We learn that she is staffing one of 550 information booths where she is expected to provide services to visitors and do a lot of smiling.  But then the article says:

But after each interaction, out comes the red logbook – where Cai, who didn't share her first name, makes a careful tally of hours worked, people helped, papers distributed, and media outlets spoken to.

This isn't your typical volunteer operation, run by independent groups working to improve a local school or save old homes from developers' bulldozers. This is volunteerism Beijing 2008 style – managed rigorously by the state and for the state.

"The government has its own structure to organize volunteers [and] prefers such ways rather than to let the volunteers organize themselves," says Jia Xijin, deputy director of the NGO Research Center at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

Next the reporter notes that, although China has made a real effort to engage volunteers for the Olympics, this does not mean that the country wants NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to gain power.  She describes the serious application and screening process for Olympic volunteers, and the intensive training given, not as examples of quality volunteer management, but as indicators of suspect “government control.”

From our perspective of volunteer management, such descriptions should evoke contradictory emotions. 

I certainly don’t want to defend the Chinese government in terms of its human rights record or openness to criticism or change.  But, on the other hand, I can’t find much wrong in their approach to volunteering for the Olympics.  To whit:

  • All indications are that the volunteers really do want to be there. Over two million Chinese citizens applied to become volunteers, sincerely wanting to put on the most hospitable show for foreign guests.   Most observers, including the reporter quoted above, have not challenged the voluntary-ness of the volunteers.  As I wrote in my Hot Topic of October 2004, when Betty Stallings and I were in China on vacation, we met people already eager to become volunteers. Conversely, contrast the Chinese situation with what’s happening in Canada in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics hosted by British Columbia.  The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) ran a story in February headlined, “B.C. Civil Servants to Be Paid to Volunteer at 2010 Olympics” and then opened the topic up for comments.  They got them!*
  • As I’ve pointed out so many times in this space, it is simply wrong to think that volunteering for a nonprofit organization is completely different from volunteering with a government agency.  Even if the government in question is Chinese, why shouldn’t citizens be involved in assuring the success of something that will affect their whole society (again, assuming non-coercion to help, which was my first point)?
  • How can anyone expect local NGOs collectively to run the Olympic Games?  The scale of the event effectively requires centralization.  And why assume that local groups of volunteers would necessarily organize the event in a less demanding manner?  Every Olympics in the recent past has developed procedures, systems, rules, and management strategies for coordinating thousands of volunteers.  This is hardly a new idea.
  • If we accept the fact that the Chinese government is running the Olympics – which clearly is the case – then don’t we want them to practice the best volunteer management?  Of course we do.  They are right in wanting the best people and in training them well.  Why not ask volunteers to record their activities?  Why infer that this has a negative reason, such as spying on the volunteer or giving information on the visitors for political purposes?  In a world obsessed with “metrics,” it will be interesting to see the total numbers reported of volunteer acts in two weeks of hosting the world.

So here’s a challenge to readers.

You’ll probably end up watching some or a lot of the Olympics this month.  Pay attention to when and how you hear mention of “volunteers.”  Are the references positive?  Do they imply that the Chinese government is being too stringent in its requirements for volunteers?  Or are other issues being raised?

Then, return here and post your observations – both what you saw/heard and what you felt while listening to it.  Maybe we can create a log of responses that will prove useful to other reporters or even to future organizing committees.

Let the Games begin!

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* Steve McCurley and I focused our Points of View commentary in the current issue of e-Volunteerism on these and even more issues raised by all Olympic Games volunteering:  “No Matter Where:  Volunteering for the Olympic Games.”

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