Change in China begins within

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In front of the Birds' Nest stadium.
Before, during and after the Olympics there has been an avalanche of news articles around the world asking the question: “Will the Olympics change China?”  In my experience, the Olympics provided ordinary Chinese with a chance to contribute to their society and experience it in a different way than ever before.  While the change this has brought may only be incremental, it is important nonetheless.

The volunteer organization at the Beijing Olympics was China’s largest volunteering effort ever: 600,000 volunteers in total, including 100,000 at the Olympic sites.  I worked more than 100 hours during the Games’ 16 competition days as a volunteer at the Olympic Green, the site of the main arenas and where most of the spectator crowds gathered.  My team comprised a group of young, dynamic university students from all over the country, most aged between 19 and 22.  As “guides” on the site, we helped spectators find the way into and out of stadiums, took photos of excited family groups and had hundreds of photos taken of us, helped the elderly and disabled navigate their way, and located lost children (and the occasional lost wife). 

The difficulty of the job – standing in the hot sun for 8 hours each day always trying to anticipate individual needs within a crowd the size of an ocean – was not lost on the spectators, many of whom thanked us just for being there when they needed help.  While our job was definitely not as glamorous as some of the volunteer tasks, such as those who performed as Fuwa, or those who drove the remote-controlled cars that fetched the shot put and discus during competition, it played a crucial role in the smooth-running of the Olympics. 

With my team of young volunteers and Jingjing, the panda Fuwa.
Towards the end of the Olympics I asked my team what they had learnt from their experience.  Overwhelmingly they said how much they enjoyed being part of such a close-knit, self-managed team.  They also said that this was the first time they had experienced how their individual contribution could make a real difference to strangers.  The appreciativeness and respect of those strangers made them feel good.  Coming from these young people who have lived a relatively sheltered life in their families and university communities, without the opportunity to directly contribute to the wellbeing of society as a whole or to organize and manage themselves for a common purpose, this was quite an awakening.

Many of the Chinese spectators also experienced something quite new during the Olympics – they found out how much fun it is to participate in a truly international event where you can go hoarse cheering for your team while the guy beside you is good-naturedly cheering for someone else.  In the events where many countries were represented, the loudest cheers were often for those from the smallest nations or even those who tried hard but came last.  On duty outside the Birds’ Nest stadium, I never tired of the enormous roaring cheers that erupted from the stadium even at times when I knew there were no Chinese competing.

The Games allowed the Chinese to let down their hair in a way I had never seen before. 
At the beginning of the Games the Chinese spectators were rather primly dressed – as if they were going to Grandma’s for lunch.  In contrast, the foreign spectators turned up in everything from leprechaun costumes to shorts sporting the Southern Cross, to Viking helmets and even superhero costumes.  It was remarkable to see that, as the days went on, this joyfulness rubbed off on the Chinese spectators and by the end of the Games, they too had silly wigs and painted faces and were wearing the Chinese flag toga style.  On the day of the men’s football final, someone at the local clothing market must have done a brisk trade because thousands of Chinese turned up wearing pale blue and white Argentinean shirts.  Who would have thought we would witness such exuberant joy in a Chinese crowd?

I don’t think that any of this by itself will transform civil society in China.  However, the Olympics gave millions of Chinese their own first-hand experience of international friendship.  Moreover, the Olympic volunteer movement provided a generation of young people from all corners of China a chance to experience the importance of social participation.  I think it is fair to say that we can be hopeful that the Olympics has brought positive change to China. 


Mara Warwick

World Bank Country Director for China and Mongolia, and Director for Korea

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