Published: 12:59, June 12, 2024
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Policies spur overseas volunteerism
By Zhou Jin

Guidelines encourage more Chinese youth to give time to aid other nations


On the streets and in alleyways in Vientiane, capital of Laos, the impact and influence of Chinese culture is evident.

Signs written in Chinese are a common sight, many restaurants and taxis in the city play Chinese songs, and many Lao youth can speak some phrases in Mandarin.

Laotians' acceptance of the Chinese language and their enthusiasm for Chinese culture have made Yao Shun, a volunteer teacher from China, more confident in his mission.

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At the end of December, Yao and four other volunteers selected by the Communist Youth League of China Shanghai Committee arrived in Laos, where they are set to spend a year providing medical assistance in local hospitals, teaching Chinese and computer skills for Laotian government officials, and other services.

Yao, who is in his mid-30s, said that as economic and cultural exchanges between China and Laos increase, they have fueled Laotians' interest in learning Chinese.

"I hope to introduce China's culture and history, as well as the country's current development, to Lao people," he said.

Laos is just one of many destinations served by China's international voluntary service, which was created in 2002 under the government-sponsored China Youth Volunteers Overseas Service Program launched by the CYLC.

In 2005, the program was formally integrated into the government's policy on foreign aid. Since then, hundreds of Chinese volunteers have been dispatched to serve in about two dozen countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The association and the United Nations Volunteers launched a cooperation program in 2019. That collaboration has led dozens of young Chinese volunteers to be dispatched to work for UN agencies across the world.

Improving the system

In April, the general offices of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council, China's Cabinet, have jointly released a set of guidelines aimed at improving the country's voluntary service system. They are the first documents to be issued by central authorities that lay out systematic plans for voluntary work in the new era.

One of the guidelines' focuses is to advance Chinese volunteering services overseas. The guidelines urge efforts to advance voluntary service for countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative, and encourage partnerships with foreign volunteer service organizations and international agencies to expand its influence.

Yang Yegong, head of the overseas service program with the Chinese Young Volunteers Association, said that the guidelines have set the tone for China's volunteerism based on the country's diplomatic exchanges.

They also outline requirements to promote international voluntary service and cooperation, spread Chinese culture and project China's image on the global stage objectively, he said.

The Chinese Youth Volunteer Overseas Service Program has made positive contributions to the economic and social development of recipient countries and enhanced friendships with people from those countries, he said.

Further efforts will be made to encourage youth volunteers to participate in a broader range of areas, especially in environmental protection, poverty reduction and other fields in line with the UN's sustainable development goals, he added.

Huang Lizhi, a lecturer from the School of African Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that China's approach to overseas volunteerism not only serves as an efficient method for foreign aid, but also plays a crucial role in shaping a generation of globally minded Chinese youth.

Such service offers substantial support to recipient countries, Huang said, adding that overseas programs also foster cultural exchanges and mutual understanding.

As a relatively new participant in international volunteerism, China does not need to follow the narratives established by earlier Western programs, she said.

Instead, China is creating a unique path for its young volunteers, she said, adding that these programs are imbued with Chinese cultural elements, reflecting China's diplomatic approaches and the country's understanding of the countries receiving aid.

China should have more confidence in its overseas volunteer programs, and further meticulously design and implement programs to meet the needs of such countries, Huang said.

By doing so, China can ensure that its volunteers are not only well-prepared, but also highly effective in their roles.

What matters most is the reputation of China's volunteer service in those countries, a legacy that will be passed down through generations, she said.

Bilateral friendship

Yao, the volunteer in Laos, said that overseas volunteer service is a way to practice people-to-people diplomacy.

"While projects like the China-Laos Railway under the BRI boost local socioeconomic development, understanding each other's languages and cultures plays a crucial role in fostering emotional connections and strengthening bilateral friendship," he said.

"With increasing exchanges between Chinese and Laotian youth, overcoming language barriers is important, making Mandarin teaching a vital bridge."

The students taking Yao's Chinese class are mainly Laotian government workers.

Despite their busy working schedules, they are highly motivated to learn Chinese and are eager for opportunities to study in China through government-sponsored programs, according to Yao.

They are also deeply interested in Chinese culture and wish to explore it further through language learning, he added.

Through daily interactions, Yao has observed gradual improvements in their pronunciation and confidence.

"They have become more willing to have conversations with me," he said.

As for him, Yao said that he has gained a sense of confidence and composure as a representative of Chinese youth serving in another country. He believes that volunteer service embodies the spirit of Chinese youth — being dedicated, loving and supportive.

Huang, the lecturer, said she has found through previous research that volunteers who immerse themselves in local communities often form deep, lasting connections with the people they serve.

"These interactions, while not having an immediate effect, were often cherished and remembered across generations," she said, adding that their experiences presented a true image of China as a country worthy of friendship.

Global engagement

By participating in these volunteer programs, young Chinese volunteers not only broaden their own horizons but also effectively share China's stories with other nations, Huang said.

Peng Bo, a student majoring in food science and engineering at Haide College of the Ocean University of China in Qingdao, Shandong province, took up a new role in February as a monitoring and evaluation assistant at the Bolivia Country Office of the United Nations World Food Programme. He will serve as a volunteer at the office for six months.

Peng, 21, is involved in a major food assistance project in western Bolivia's Oruro province, one of the country's poorest regions that is currently grappling with a food shortage and relies on external assistance.

His office distributes vouchers to people that they can exchange for food. He said that the program has benefited over 10,000 impoverished households.

Peng also participated in a national effort to identify over 10,000 recipients. It was a huge task due to Bolivia's complicated ID system, he said.

With his knowledge of Python, a computer programming language, he designed a program to efficiently collect and categorize information about Bolivian citizens, which improved the efficiency of aid distribution.

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He said the program has the potential to be implemented in similar institutions in neighboring countries, making it one of his most satisfying achievements.

For Peng, volunteering for the WFP has been a valuable experience.

"My first time going abroad is to engage in something meaningful in a distant country, which is exciting and significant," he said.

This volunteer experience has allowed Peng to embrace an unfamiliar culture and learn about how an international organization functions, he said, adding that this experience has also increased his interest in pursuing a career within UN agencies.

As a member of the post-2000 generation, Peng said he is encouraged by and proud to see Chinese youth actively engaging in multilateral institutions and international affairs.