The New Lei Fengs: From Sacrifice to Win-Win?

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To mark today’s International Volunteer Day we are re-publishing this article on Chinese volunteerism. It was originally published in June, 2014. The theme of this year’s International Volunteer Day is ‘People’s Participation. Make Change happen, volunteer!


I sat sipping a weak coffee and listening to the young woman talk about how she drunk and smoked too much, how she spent too much money on clothes, and how she was too selfish and rarely called her mother. The next day I would talk to a young man with spiky hair, skinny jeans, and sunglasses with polarized lenses, and hear him talk about the deep influence of his beloved pop stars and his dissatisfaction with his life. The week before I had talked to a softly spoken man who talked earnestly, the conversation weaving back and forth between environmental issues and the desirability of the latest Apple product. And the connection between these three individuals? They were, and still are, committed volunteers, working in grassroots NGOs, and occupying one small corner of China’s vast and varied civil society landscape.

There have been many studies of China’s civil society but few focus on the ‘average’ individuals that operate within an NGO. This is an overlooked but important topic. With the growth of civil society over the past decade, there are now several million Chinese NGOs. Extrapolating from this figure there can be said to be several tens of millions of people who have worked in NGOs, with many of these doing so on a voluntary basis. This is a considerable group of people.

How these people experience work in NGOs is an important subject for analysis. Firstly it can provide new insight into contemporary Chinese social values. As civil society and volunteerism experts Anheier and Salamon‘s state: “volunteering is part of the way societies are organized, how they allocate social responsibilities, and how much engagement and participation they expect from citizens” ((A recent UN report says: “China is experiencing a wave of volunteering. It has become a social trend to volunteer in communities, in schools and in corporations”. UN Volunteers (2011), “State of Volunteerism in China 2011”, available at 1_English.pdf , pp.32)). Secondly it can also shed light on the state of civil society, and on how civil society is itself having an impact on social values. Whilst not as tangible as issues of funding or program management, creating a positive and mutually beneficial experience for the individual who enters an NGO is important for the healthy and sustainable growth of civil society. Finally it also shifts the focus away from the ‘activist’ individuals that Western media tends to concentrate upon. For every ‘activist’ there are a hundred thousand volunteers quietly working within voluntary organizations, and, through doing so, gently shifting social–relations and values, and altering the relationship between society and civil society.

This article introduces some of the key themes that emerged from research that I conducted in 2011-2012 for my doctoral thesis on Chinese NGO volunteerism. The main part of the data was collected through the use of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with young, urban Chinese adults engaged in volunteer work with grassroots Chinese NGOs. In demographic terms, the individuals looked at in my study cannot be said to be representative of the Chinese population as whole. However, they can be said to be representative of a growing trend of urbanites engaging in volunteering and involving themselves in civil society ((Anheier, H.K. and Salamon, L.M. (1999), “Volunteering in Cross-National Perspective: Initial Comparisons”, Law and Contemporary Problems (62 ): 43-66, pp 43.)).

Re-defining the volunteer

In my research I interviewed more than sixty volunteers operating in grassroots NGOs in one city in southwest China. I asked the interviewees to talk about their volunteering experiences, their views on volunteerism, and how volunteering had changed their own attitudes and values.From these conversations, perhaps the dominant theme that emerged was how the interviewees’ extremely strong notions of individuality and re-imagined social commitments created anew, bottom-up generated identity of volunteering and voluntary association. This revised identity incorporated conceptions of Anheier and Salamon’s ‘social commitments’, ‘responsibilities’, and ‘engagement’, that diverged significantly from historical and contemporary narratives of the Chinese volunteer. At the same time it also contradicted several conventional viewpoints: (1)historical readings that emphasize that the ‘Chinese individual’ is collectivist; (2) common contemporary readings that emphasize that the ‘Chinese individual’ is amorally, selfishly individualistic; and (3) globally accepted wisdom that correlate increasing individualism with declining civic engagement.

Firstly, let’s deal with historical readings. The collectivism vs. individualism dichotomy is a core feature that defines any culture and, according to accepted wisdom, the Chinese individual has long been subordinate to the collective ((See for example Hofstede, G. H. (2001), Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviours, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed), Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications; Cao, J.X. (2009), “The Analysis of Tendency of Transition from Collectivism to Individualism in China”, Cross Cultural Communication 5(4): 42-50.)). For Chinese volunteering this was personified by the ‘selfless’ and ‘sacrificial’ Lei Feng who represented the ideal socialist; fully collectivist, and devoting his altruism to the Party. Lei’s “screw spirit” (螺丝钉精神) – calling for collectivist devotion to the Party and the People – was promoted by the state, whilst March 5th became ‘Learn from Lei Feng Day’, when students and workers were detailed to engage in ‘voluntary’ activities. However, for the individuals interviewed in my study, the ‘self’ was at the center of their accounts and a selfless, Lei Feng-style approach to volunteering activities was criticized by every single interviewee. For example the interviewee Ziqing, who was one of the most committed volunteers in the survey talked about how “volunteer spirit is about yourself” and that “I’m helping people but that I’m not sacrificing myself to help people”. Similarly, Zhenyi, another of the most committed volunteers, said that “today’s volunteer spirit is absolutely not about selfless sacrifice.” [Authors note: all interviewee’s names are pseudonyms]

Secondly, the definition of volunteerism generated by the individuals in my study also disputes the dominant narrative in media articles that states that Chinese individualism is anti-social, selfish, or hedonistic. According to this narrative the relationship between the individual and the ‘collective’ is portrayed as zero-sum, and to be overly individualistic is to do so at the expense of the collective. However, even though the individual was at the center of the interviewee’s accounts, it was not anti-social self-interest. Instead it was the positive-sum recognition that a stronger individuality was both desirable for the individual themselves, and good for society as a whole. The relationship that they were looking for was one emphasizing reciprocity and mutuality, looking for ‘balance’ and a ‘win-win’ situation. Many of the interviews contrasted this ‘balance’ with the ‘imbalance’ of ‘sacrificial’, Lei Feng-style volunteering. For example the interviewee Hongmei said that “Lei Feng was selfless (无私) but todays volunteering is to help yourself first then help others” and Ziqing also talked about achieving a better balance in helping others: “[it] made me think that I’m helping people but that I’m not sacrificing myself to help people. That I’m probably the same as them anyway and that we are facing the same problems. We will solve problems together.”

Finally, on a global scale the findings dispute Western communitarian critiques of individualism that draw links between increasing individualism and ‘declines’ in society, civil society, and pro-social attitudes. However,the emphasis on the individual in the volunteers’ accounts suggests that, at least for the Chinese context, a strong emphasis on individualism can lead to an increase in pro-social action and an increased engagement in civil society. The interviewees drew attention to some of the ways in which a stronger conception of individualism can actually induce pro-social behavior and, in doing so, they showed that a rejection of ‘sacrificial’ collectivism does not necessarily result in anti-social action.

Exploring lifestyles and perspectives

This ‘redefinition’ of volunteering – incorporating more individuality, mutuality, and reciprocity – informed many of the other themes that were identified in my research. One of these was that of ‘exploration’ [探索]. Many of the interviewees said that they volunteered in aNGO to ‘discover’ new ways of thinking and doing. For some of the interviewees this was because they wanted to initiate [开始] a change in their life, or even because of a desire for redemption [拯救] – to ‘do good’ to make up for the ‘bad’ things that they did in the normal course of their life. For many it was because they wanted to make their life ‘broader’, ‘more colourful’, or ‘more meaningful’. The interviewee Wenling saw volunteering as a way to encounter new people and new ideas: “I wanted new experiences, to get involved with a social group so I can see society from a new perspective” and went on to say that: “I don’t mind who I am helping: old people, sick children, etc. The most important thing is that they are different to me”. Engagement in a NGO was therefore portrayed as being a transformative, symbiotic [共生] process; broadening the horizons of the volunteers and providing them with new materials to shape their own identity. The interviewee Xiuying’s statement succinctly summed this up: “Whether it’s from the perspective of the people we are helping, or from the perspective of my fellow volunteers, from coming into contact with them I can use their eyes to view the world. This can give me a really fresh and new worldview or values system”.

Linked to ‘exploration’, some of the interviewees talked of their volunteering in ‘lifestyle’ [生活方式] terms, indicating that the act of volunteering was just as important, or even more important, than the alignment [方向] of the action. This meant that for some it was ‘being a volunteer’ that was more important than ‘being an environmentalist’ or someone interested in helping the elderly. This is not to say that they were not committed volunteers, but rather that ‘the volunteer’ lifestyle was a more representative container for the sum of their views than the words ‘environment’, or ‘poverty’, or ‘LGBT’. Many of these interviewees also implied that they would get involved with other NGOs focusing on vastly different causes.

The interviewee Chenhua, who volunteered for a NGO that assisted the elderly in old people’s homes, said that: “I haven’t got a particular interest in helping old people – I just wanted to be a volunteer. If the activity was, for example, helping children, then I would also do it”. Xiuying said something similar: “I didn’t have any particular interest in an aim or anything, I just wanted to become a volunteer, because, well you know, becoming a volunteer is a way to expand the scope of your life. So I wouldn’t restrict myself to just one thing, like helping animals or helping children. I just wanted to purely become a volunteer”.In this sense for these volunteers, ‘volunteerism’ itself, can be seen as a type of identity-forming social movement.


Another interesting theme that was identified was the lack of patriotic or nationalistic sentiment informing the interviewee’s decision to volunteer. The growth of Chinese popular nationalism is a trend that is heavily focused upon by Western media. It is also one that is incompatible with the plurality and diversity of the most commonly accepted definitions of civil society. One of the original hypotheses of my research was that nationalism or patriotism would be of considerable importance to the interviewee’s narratives of volunteering.

However, this hypothesis was overwhelmingly disproved. None of the interviewees described nationalism or patriotism as being big motivating factors in their volunteering. Although most of them said that they were patriotic, and some even nationalistic, almost all of them explicitly distinguished between patriotism and volunteering. The interviewee Liyun was probably the best example of this. A self-identified ‘angry youth’ [愤青]who had recently taken part in anti-Japanese protests, she nevertheless saw no link between her volunteering and her patriotism/nationalism: “Yes, I am a patriot, yes I am a volunteer, but they have no relationship to each other. I’ve never thought about them being related at all.” Furthermore, although most of the interviewee’s said that they were patriotic, a ‘global identity’ was indicated as being significantly important by many of the interviewees. Many of them distinguished between volunteers and ‘non-volunteers’, regardless of nationality, in doing so indicating that as a ‘volunteer’ they had more in common with a foreign volunteer than with a Chinese ‘non-volunteer’.What was common to all of them was that the individuall was central to their trajectories [轨道] of volunteering: as the interviewee Chende said: “it’s not that I love this country so I participate in this volunteer activity, its more that I love my life so I participate”.


These brief summaries of some of the findings of my research have hopefully presented a more well-rounded picture of the individuals who form Chinese civil society and perhaps even an indication of where the society-civil society relationship is heading in the future. By focusing on individual narratives my research offers a portrayal of the contemporary Chinese volunteer and their use of civil society to reconcile individual and collectivist concerns that is at odds with many components of popular, state, and Western narratives.

Although most of the volunteers discussed in the paper clearly belonged to the ‘我一代’ (the ‘me-generation’) and had strongly individualistic tendencies, they were not selfish, anti-social, or ‘money-seeking’ (往钱看). Although they were not boundary-pushing activists, they could not be accurately described as ‘heirs’ of Lei Feng (雷锋传人), guided solely by the state, or nationalistic ‘angry-youth’ (愤青), volunteering for national glory.Instead they conceived their volunteering activities around a balanced conception of individualism and collectivism, harmonising the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ in a reciprocal equilibrium. This balance, it could be argued, is something that China has lacked in the past. As the interviewee Meixiu said “My understanding of the modern concept of ‘volunteer spirit’ is that it needs to come from the individual […]. It is not that they go forth and help others because they rely on what someone or something else says. Rather, they give a contribution to society because they themselves attach importance to helping others. In that way they can solve many problems in a more balanced way.”


In Brief

CDB’s Tom Bannister introduces some of the themes that emerged from his research into Chinese NGO volunteerism, including the re-definition of volunteering and the impact of changed social values on volunteerism.
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