08/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Marketing, Nationalism and the Olympics Launch an Era of Volunteerism in China

A high-ranking BOCOG official recently said that once people have food on the table and disposable income in their pockets, volunteerism naturally follows. Combine economics with national pride and a little marketing, and you have the unprecedented turn out of volunteers on display at Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics.

The glorification of service is pervasive around the city. Informational kiosks manned by volunteers sit strategically near tourist attractions and university campuses like Tsinghua, Beijing and Renmin. Photos of smiling, uniformed volunteers paper the kiosk walls, and the signs read "Volunteer" in large English letters. A monument on the Olympic Green reads, "Our Volunteers' Smiles are Beijing's Image."

State-run media are also using the Olympics as an opportunity to develop the public's conception of volunteerism. During my first week in Beijing I was invited to sit in the studio audience of an episode of Chinese talk show "Xiao Cui Talks about Things." The episode's theme was volunteerism in China as demonstrated through the Olympics.

Through a mix of screwball audience participation, studio interviews, and dramatic multimedia segments, the show connects China's spirit of volunteerism to themes of national duty, ethical maturity and pride. Host Xiao Cui tested on air the interview and reporting skills of several foreign media volunteers. A woman representing a school for disabled children in Ningxia province came on stage with two students to introduce the school's fundraising efforts, such as selling T-shirt designed by students.

The segment achieved two complementary goals: it publicized Olympic volunteerism and acquainted Chinese audiences with philanthropy.

"The idea of volunteers has not been completely accepted by the Chinese public or drawn the participation of most people," said Lu Yongzheng, secretary of the Secretariat of the Committee in a Xinhua article posted 07/25/08. "The volunteer spirit is not inborn and it takes time for the public to recognize such a new thing." In a traditionally family-centric society, people historically conducted favors only for those within their circle of relationships.

While the show transmits an image of a harmonious Beijing full of Olympic supporters and volunteers, not everyone is thrilled to host the games. 1.25 million residents have been relocated since 2001 to make way for the wrecking ball. A family interviewed in a Washington Post article whose home and nut shop are slated for destruction scoffs at the Olympic slogan "One World, One Dream." Why must their livelihood be crushed?

Nonetheless, messages glorifying Olympic volunteerism over the years likely influenced the large outpouring of financial support and volunteerism that followed the May 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. "Thousands of volunteers headed to the disaster zone, from businessmen to Christian youth," writes The Economist in "China Helps Itself" (5/4/08). Catering companies donated warm meals and private individuals rushed to help. On a recent trip to Shanghai, I was overwhelmed to see a number of billboards advertising fundraising efforts to aid victims.

A similar outpouring is visible at the Olympics, which began the recruitment process in June 2006. According to Xinhua, over 1.2 million Chinese from around the country vied for 100,000 spots. The process, not unlike the one UNC students went through, was rigorous. Student volunteers I've spoken to said they were tested on their ability to identify cultural and historic sites in Beijing. They were asked how they would answer controversial questions about politics and the environment.

Students volunteer around the Olympic Green as crossing guards, security guards and help desk assistants. They patrol hallways and set up info desks in subway stations. Whatever the assignment, they perform it happily. At LLP, an engineering student from Ningxia is not convinced her work assignment will be that challenging or fun, but her spirits remain high.

When asked why they do it, volunteers almost unanimously say they do it for China and for the Olympics. A student from Harbin says she chose Tsinghua University for graduate school because she wanted to volunteer at the Olympics when Beijing won the bid in 2001. Another IBC volunteer echoes the sentiment. He chose Tsinghua because it brought him closer to the Olympics.

Even the elderly and retired have been recruited for "city volunteer" duty near the tourist sites. Today I walked several blocks near Beihai Park and the Drum Tower. On one block alone, I passed 14 elderly volunteers sitting street-side on stools wearing white volunteer t-shirts and identifying badges. Most of these people do not speak English and are here to help domestic tourists only. I asked a woman in her 60s what her job was. She answered that she shows the way to visitors who are lost. She quickly added that she volunteers for the Olympics and for China. Another woman told me she doesn't consider volunteering to be a job. She's proud to perform her duty.

When they see that I'm a volunteer, many people treat me with unexpected reverence. On the subway yesterday a young man offered me his seat. As I took it, he turned to his companion to say "She's a volunteer so I guess I'll give her my seat." And at dinner that same night, a friend's Chinese colleagues, upon hearing that I am an Olympic volunteer, burst into ardent exclamations of "Thank you, thank you so much."

If the Olympics are China's chance to narrate who it is, then let's be glad volunteerism plays a crucial role.