Volunteering not voluntary

Updated: 2011-12-01 07:38

By Xu Junqian (China Daily)

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Volunteering not voluntary

Students from Beijing University of Chemical Technology took disabled children kite-flying in Chaoyang district, hoping to inspire the kids to pursue their life's desires. Chen Xiaogen / for China Daily

Students bused from school and made to work at leisure expo, Xu Junqian reports in Hangzhou.

Xia Feng is not a goody-goody who gets straight A's and never skips class. But when the Zhejiang University junior learned he would go two months without a single lesson, he decided to defend his "rights to sit in the classroom and learn new knowledge".

Just two days after the semester began, Xia and 119 other advertising and exhibition majors were told their classes were being suspended so the students could "volunteer" at the second World Leisure Expo in Hangzhou. Starting the next week, they would be bused from the university's City College to the venue to work seven hours a day, six days a week. The trip takes two hours each way.The notice quickly stirred up dissatisfaction among students and their parents, developing into a protest against compulsory volunteerism, servitude versus service.

Some argued that the school should not use student labor for free while it charges 19,000 yuan (nearly $3,000) a year in tuition. Seniors who are job-hunting or preparing for post-graduate studies complained that the long hours would leave them little time for important, pressing matters.

Zhang Lanxin, deputy dean of advertising studies, said the volunteer work is "a part of students' social practice that is necessary for study". However, her office did compromise. It shortened the period to one month, and allowed students the option to "observe" the Leisure Expo venue at least eight times, an assignment that would require reports and to be counted in the final grades.

"We are not against voluntary work," said Xia, 21, who is still angry, "but we want to have the freedom to choose when, where and for what we are doing that."

'Short of hands'

With the increasing number of expositions and games held in China, volunteers are in high demand.

Yu Gang is director of the Hangzhou Youth League, the executive department of all volunteer projects in the city, including the one for the Leisure Expo. He said that 90 percent of the volunteers for the event were college students.

"The event needs 400 volunteers a day, 200 positions in total. And college students are the only ones who can provide such a long and consistent available working time."

Yu also coordinated volunteers for the eighth National Para Games, which overlapped with the Leisure Expo.

Hangzhou, the capital of East China's Zhejiang province, has 768,000 registered volunteers, but Yu suspects that most of them are office workers and available only on weekends. "We are really running short of hands."

Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist at Shanghai's Fudan University, thinks labor cost should also be calculated into the budget for big events, whether held by local governments or companies. "If you do not have the money, you simply quit the plan.

"Compulsory voluntary work of this kind is dangerous and disrespectful of students," he said. "It could hurt their passion for good deeds like this, and essentially twist the original meaning of the word 'volunteer.'"

Volunteering not voluntary

More than 300 from Xi'an Fanyi University bagged trash pulled from the Fenghe River. They're part of an effort to protect the Qinling Mountains that was launched by 10,000 college students. Yuan Jingzhi / for China Daily

18 years of growth

Statistics from the China Youth League show that 30.47 million people in China are registered as volunteers under the organization, the biggest of its kind. They have collectively volunteered on 400 million occasions, contributing 8.3 billion hours of service at all kinds of events since 1993, when the central government began to promote volunteerism.

"The concept of voluntary work may be still new in China compared with foreign countries, considering its 18 years of development, but the contribution that's been made is evident," said Lu Yongzhen, secretary-general of China Youth Volunteer Association.

"At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the devastating 512 earthquake in Sichuan and charity projects like helping AIDS patients - they (volunteers) are everywhere," he said. "And it is improving, bit by bit, every year."

More than 90 percent of cities and nearly 2,000 universities in China have formed special associations for young volunteers. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and about 15 other cities have introduced regulations to protect the legal rights of volunteers. For example, a person who is injured while doing volunteer work should be paid a certain amount of compensation.

Gu, the sociologist, suggested that the country draft a national law to protect volunteers, especially the young because they have accounted for the lion's share of the group.

"An important idea should be passed to students that their time is valued," Gu said. "And the idea that people can enjoy services for free must be corrected."

Yu, Hangzhou's volunteer work official, liked the national law idea and had his own proposal - that student volunteers be given favorable treatment such as free bus rides while doing volunteer service or extra credits when applying for civil service jobs.

'Sense of achievement'

Some volunteers have already found the extra value.

Sun Wei, a sophomore at Shanghai Jiaotong University, volunteered as an individual to be a tour guide inside the 5.28-square-kilometer Expo Park during the Shanghai 2010 Expo. He called it inspiring and "a precious social experience outside campus".

A power machinery and engineering major, Sun and several classmates and Expo volunteers devised an LED guide stick after working for about three months in the park and finding that tourists usually had difficulty spotting the guides at night.

The lightweight and energy-saving stick was adapted to be worn on the volunteers' uniforms, and was used by thousands of Expo volunteers.

"It's nothing new," Sun said. "But this is the first time I combined what I learned at school and people's actual needs. The inspiration and sense of achievement received in return can never be obtained in class."

The Expo's six-month run has provided a bonus for some who volunteered and performed jobs ranging from translation to reception to keeping order: They have been hot in the job market, whether fresh graduates or already established in careers.

"With such a huge flow of visitors (70 million in total) and a mixture of staff from all over the world, the six-month voluntary work provided an unprecedented, highly demanding experience," said Hong Wenxiang, chief director of Qianlima Human Resources Service Center. His headhunting company has helped some private companies in Zhejiang to find talented people who volunteered for the Expo.

"They can work under high pressure, in emergencies and with a cooperative spirit," Hong said. Those are skills that take three to five years to develop in ordinary jobs, he said.

According to the Shanghai 2010 Expo Volunteer Work Center, nine companies with a total of 250 job openings have especially sought out Expo volunteers. These do not include companies that resorted to headhunters for the same purpose.

Volunteering not voluntary

Wang Kaimei held a camera for the first time and captured her friends' smiles, part of a project by Yangzhou University volunteers working in Guizhou province with kids whose parents were away at city jobs. Provided to China Daily

Giving back

Meanwhile, some industrial tycoons and business magnates from Zhejiang province are volunteering their time and finding value in it.

Just weeks after the dispute erupted between the students and Zhejiang's City College, a special team of chauffeurs formed by these business people appeared at the Para Games. They ferried disabled athletes and audience members in their own cars, mostly luxury models.

"For us, it's like doing charity. We require nothing but only want to give, because giving makes us happy," said Dai Jianming, founder of the Zhejiang Lions Club. Fifty club members put aside their work Oct 11-19 and drove seven or eight trips a day between stadiums and, sometimes, cities.

What was it like? "It's very likely that your driver for the ride is a billionaire," Dai joked during the interview.

Dai, the general manager of a construction company in Hangzhou, established the Zhejiang branch of the International Lions Club, a global nonprofit service organization founded in United States in 1917, at the end of 2009. He said he did it because many of his wealthy friends were eager to find a trustworthy platform through which they could contribute their strength rather than just money.

The club's roster has expanded from 226 charter members to 1,326 by the end of August, the most recent data available. More than half of the members are business people, and the rest are lawyers, doctors and others with both time and money.

Over the past two years, they have appeared at orphanages, hospitals and the scenes of earthquakes, serving thousands of people, Dai said. "The happiness of actually helping people can be more soothing than simply donating money. It's more direct, sincere and less sensitive without money."

Lions Club member Zhang Lei put it this way: "Every time after service, I have found myself receiving more than giving."