Volunteerism and the State: Understanding the Development of Volunteering in China

Ying Xu


The notion of volunteerism embodies a set of values, such as altruism and philanthropy, which emphasize taking action by personal choice without expectation of payment (Dunn, 1995). As an action, volunteerism includes a set of voluntary structures that could be very diverse since the voluntary organizations are likely to exist as either formal organizations within the social welfare system or informal, independent, purely non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Brilliant, 1997; Butcher, 2003).[1] The term state expresses both a monopoly that can defend a given territory with force against outsiders and a legal relationship that varies in accordance with the specific laws, conventions, and customs of a particular country (Weber, 1968). Although the state is not equal to the government, the current government is important since it has legitimate power that implements the state’s power on behalf of the country. In China, the terms state and government are interchangeable since the government has a high degree of formal, centralized power in the country.

The relationship between volunteerism and the state is complex. On the one hand, “to volunteer is to choose to act with an attitude of social responsibility when a need is recognized, without concern for tangible gain” (Dunn, 1995, p. 2483). In this regard, the government may actively promote volunteerism because volunteerism represents a moral superiority, which not only improves the nation’s economic development but also enhances social cohesion (de Tocqueville, 2000; Xu & Ngai, 2011). On the other hand, the spirit of volunteerism emphasizes free will, which means that people choose to act without coercion. Organized volunteering is not limited to altruism; it can actually help people who are not involved in politics pursue freedom, opportunity, safety, and social justice (de Tocqueville, 2000; White, Howell, & Shang, 1996). As a result, governments in autocratic countries regard such volunteerism as a challenge to their authority.

In other words, since most governments in developing countries are committed to two important tasks—promoting national development and maintaining the existing regime—the state is likely to support some types of volunteerism (e.g., volunteering in nonpolitical welfare services) while attempting to control other forms of volunteerism (e.g., advocacy and legal support volunteering). Given that the current rate of adult volunteerism in developing nations is much lower than in developed countries (Anheier & Salamon, 2006),[2] solid knowledge about the relationship between volunteerism and the state in developing countries has been limited. Based on a comprehensive literature review and interview data from a study undertaken between 2006 and 2014 (Xu, 2014 ; Xu & Ngai, 2011), this chapter applies the moral resources and political capital perspective to examine the role of the state in promoting volunteerism in an ever-changing China.

  • [1] Formal volunteering should be an organized action (Brilliant, ed., 1995, pp. 2469-2470).However, an altruistic behavior (such as offering a bus seat to an elderly person) can sometimes beconsidered an act of informal volunteering, which does not necessarily require any organization.For example, according to the working definition for the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report,the term “volunteerism” refers to “social behaviour undertaken by people that is characterized byfour main features. First, it is useful as ‘service’ or ‘productive work,’ not purely enjoyment for itsown sake. Second, it is directed to other people outside the immediate family/household. If it takesplace inside the family/household, the action is considered ‘informal care,’ ‘family care,’ or‘household care,’ not volunteering. Third, volunteerism must be non-compulsory, thus not coercedor forced externally by law, contract, or other powerful social influences. Fourth, while the act ofvolunteering, the expression of volunteerism, may receive some expense-reimbursement or otherfinancial payments, it is not done primarily for monetary gain, and the payments in monetary termsare usually less than the economic value of the volunteer work done.” Therefore, this chapter willtake a much broader view of volunteerism to include not only formal service to others but alsoself-help, mutual aid, cooperation, social activism, political advocacy, civic engagement, politicalcampaigning, religious and faith-based service, business or professional association activity, andother forms of activity that fall within the parameters outlined above. Y. Xu (*) Department of Social Work, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Chinae-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017 J. Butcher, C.J. Einolf (eds.), Perspectives on Volunteering, Nonprofit and CivilSociety Studies, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39899-0_11
  • [2] For example, in 1995, 43 % of adults volunteered in the Netherlands (Gaskin & Smith, 1997,pp. 28-31), while in China, the volunteering rate was only 3 % in 2005 (Pan, 2005).
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >