He Relays "Lei Feng Spirit" in Modern Volunteerism
by Manling, host of China Plus
In contrast to the outgoing and worldly image that comes through from his resume, Guo Jiawenzhang seemed rather shy and reserved at first when I met him in person. But it didn't take long for his eloquence to shine through once he stepped up to the microphone.
Guo Jiawenzhang takes an interview from China Plus on Feb.18, 2019. [Photo: China Plus/Jianfu]
Wenzhang caught our attention because of his involvement in writing last year's State of the World's Volunteerism Report (SWVR), which for the first time included two cases from China based on field research. And in another first, the report was published in Chinese in China. This signifies the big strides China has made taking part in international volunteerism.
As the world looks towards China to make an even greater contribution, it is worthwhile asking why it has taken so long for China to be a part of the global family of volunteers, and what has stopped the spirit of Chinese hospitality and benevolence from growing into professional volunteerism. Do we as a people or a nation really lack the spirit of a good Samaritan, as many people both inside and outside China have claimed? And if that's true, how could Chinese civilization survived the test of time and maintained its vitality?
"We have always been there," Wenzhang said, as he assured me that we aren't lacking the spirit of volunteerism. In his opinion, the issue is that Chinese people are not good at communicating effectively with others.
This got me thinking. For centuries, Chinese people lived in something of a bubble. Inside this bubble, they developed their own traditions, culture, and philosophy. Although in the past four decades, China has become more open to the world, there is a degree to which Chinese people have failed to tell others who we are and what we want. This shortcoming, which comes in part from our slavish adherence to the virtue of modesty, has hindered us from making bigger strides when it comes to opening up to the world, including in the field of international volunteerism.
Born in 1992 into a middle-income family, Wenzhang was lucky to have the liberty to choose his own major and career path. Most young people his age had to submit to their parent's decision on these matters. Wenzhang said he chose international development because he had spent far too much time at home, and was itching to go out into the world. "Before college I'd never traveled outside Hebei", which is his native province. His major in international development brought him to an international stage. This drew him out of his comfort zone and into world, as far afield as Africa.
After graduating from China Agricultural University, Wenzhang studied for a Master's degree in the Netherlands before taking up opportunities to intern in Tanzania and Ghana. This internship provided Wenzhang with valuable opportunities to broaden his horizon and gain new knowledge and skills. After returning to Beijing, he joined United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme. He was keen to learn from his colleagues from elsewhere in the world, and he stretched himself by taking on responsibilities such as project and human resource management.
Guo Jiawenzhang works as UN volunteer in 2017. [File photo provided to China Plus]
Wenzhang was born in Tangshan, the site of a devastating earthquake in 1976. Despite the earthquake happening well before he was born, Wenzhang inherited the collective memory of pain and loss that was deeply carved into the minds of Tangshan people. When in early 2008 a major earthquake struck Sichuan, the 16 year old saw how volunteers from all over the country poured into the region. Some of them came from his hometown Tangshan, despite being emptyhanded and not knowing what they could do to help. For people from Tangshan, their motivation was simple: we were helped in our time of need, and now is the time for us to pay it back.
A major difference in the response to the two big earthquakes was that during the former, the rescue and relief efforts were mobilized by the government, whereas after the Sichuan earthquake, people mobilized by the government worked side-by-side with volunteers. Reflecting on both earthquakes, we should be proud of the ability of the Chinese people to be resilient and deal with such an extraordinarily natural disaster.
But the experience in Sichuan also taught us that being a good volunteer requires more than just good intentions – it requires training, organization, and professionalism. The enthusiasm of individual volunteers quickly died down as the government advised people not to travel to the site of the disaster on their own, as vehicles were starting to block supply lines into the region. And people were told not to distribute their own food to people in case there were hygiene problems.
Later that same year, Wenzhang witnessed a well-organized use of volunteer resources when China hosted the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Without the army of student volunteers, China wouldn't have been able to deliver such a splendid event to a world audience. The two events in the same year helped to form a picture of contemporary volunteerism in China, one was mostly individual, and spontaneous, and the other systematic, and institutional.