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Saturday Night Live - at Elderly Home
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Most 22-year-old single men would like to go out on a date or hang out with friends on a Saturday evening but not Liu Xiang.

His idea of a good Saturday night in Shanghai is reading to senior citizens at an urban center. "This is my way of contributing to the world's, and its people's, well-being," he said last week.

OK, so one young do-gooder doesn't make a campaign, right? But what about two, or 20, or even more?

Zheng Xu has been living in the urban center where Liu goes for almost 10 years. She is 89 years old, and her diminished sight makes it impossible for her to read or watch TV.

Saturday nights with Liu are "the absolute highlight of the week," Zheng said excitedly. "These things give us so much joy and pleasure."

Liu said: "The joy I bring to the people is my main motivation for happily going back to the center every Saturday."

Until a few years ago, the centre for the elderly did not receive any volunteer visitors such as Liu. But "China is changing quickly in this respect," Zheng said. "In our time, we were too involved making sure that we and our families were OK and in good health.

"Nowadays the young people in our country have much easier lives, which enables them to think about us, too."

Sarah Liang of Greenpeace China said she has also noticed an increase in volunteerism, especially among young people.

"When they see the gaps between their idealism and reality, they want to get involved and make changes," Liang said on the eve of World Vounteer Day, which is today.

In the future, historians may well look at the early 21st century and remember it as the period when China became more socially conscious.

Until recently, China was not widely recognized as a country where volunteering was a great part of its culture.

Hai Yu, sociology professor at Fudan University who specializes in global volunteerism, has done extensive studies on the development of volunteerism in China since the 1980s.

"After the introduction of the concept of volunteerism and its acceptance by the government, it became very popular to become a volunteer among Chinese youth," he said. "Voluntary organizations provide paths for citizens to be involved more in their communities."

It's not just a few familiar names; the number of other organizations that can improve the situation of the world is unlimited. The most active non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that use volunteers in China are involved in environmental protection.

Roots & Shoots Shanghai, part of a youth-driven network of more than 8,000 groups in almost 100 countries, has seen the development of volunteerism among China's youth up close. Its service learning projects promote care and concern for animals, the environment and the human community.

"I loved my experience of being a volunteer mentor for a primary school Roots & Shoots group," said Liu Tong, 21. "The kids were cute and so curious about the world. By teaching them, I myself learned a lot too!"

Tori Zwisler, director of the organization's Shanghai office, said the organization firmly believes in the concept of "empowerment through education" and co-operates closely with schools ranging from pre-kindergarten to universities in and around Shanghai.

"In 1999, we started Roots & Shoots with a network of only two schools," Zwisler said. Today Roots & Shoots' database consists of 135 schools and 10,000 active volunteering kids.

Why it's happening

Hai Yu says the enormous increase in volunteerism can be attributed to two major factors. The more important one is explicit promotion by the government, which is encouraging volunteerism among young Chinese.

"This promotion does not only serve the construction of a moral ideology, but it also helps the government to solve the social problems in the country," he said.

Second, he credits the influence of international society. "Young people regard becoming involved in voluntary projects a fashionable lifestyle, a good opportunity to develop moral awareness and fulfil a social responsibility," the professor said.

Another volunteer, Bao Qinfen, 21, said: "Being a volunteer became so natural for me. I am glad that I am able to contribute to a cause I believe in."

Zwisler adds that parental support for volunteerism is also a big influence on the rise of its popularity.

"With the increase in the welfare of the middle class in China, parents realize they do not both need to work 60 hours a week any more, and time can be spent on other activities besides working," she said.

"Ten years ago, parents were mainly focused on establishing their lives first and foremost, so little time for anything else remained.

"Nowadays their lives have reached a developed level. Therefore, they encourage their kids to get involved in volunteering."

And the fact that many Chinese youth are only children in their families, a result of the one-child policy, also comes into play.

"These kids tend to be a bit self-centered since they are not used to having a brother or sister around them to be social with," Zwisler said.

"Engaging in voluntary projects with other school kids also educates them socially, which the parents really encourage."

Furthermore, parents try to get their children to look outside the purely Chinese focus, Zwisler said: "Voluntary projects also provide for the kids to broaden their vision of the outside world and serve as a cross-cultural education and networking opportunity."

Limited resources are hampering further maturity of volunteerism, and both Zwisler and Hai Yu said the government can do better.

"The government, unfortunately, has no money to subsidize volunteer organizations," Zwisler said, noting that volunteer organizations are wholly dependent on subsidies and grants.

Hai Yu added: "The government should create opportunities for the exploration and construction of resources for the organizations. This includes a preferential taxation policy."

If the policy were applied, Yu said, volunteer organizations would be encouraged to taking responsibility for public projects and be able to encourage more people to join voluntary organizations.

The government has stated its commitment to the strengthening of volunteerism in China in light of its need of thousands of volunteers during the Bejing Olympic Games in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.

Zwisler and her colleagues deal with this limitation of resources every day. "Although we would love it if 100 more schools were involved in our project, and even though the demand is clearly there, we simply do not have the means or resources to incorporate them into our projects," she said.

A recent positive development is that local Chinese business communities are getting more involved. Through the education of the young people and their communication with their parents, Roots & Shoots managed to approached some Chinese corporations and asked them for financial support.

Whereas a year ago all funds originated from international companies and foundations, this year Roots & Shoots received 30 per cent of its funds from local Chinese companies.

"This is the way it should ideally be," Zwisler said. "We are a Chinese organization, caring for problems in China and trying to improve them. It is only logical that our projects should be financed by Chinese corporations."

She emphasized the importance of educating Chinese youth in the volunteer environment.

"If we make them aware of things going on around them and the significance of trying to improve the situation, they will be making the right decisions when they, in time, govern this country."

(China Daily December 5, 2006)

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