Shanghai Softens Up

Shanghai is different from most Chinese cities. Even before the birth of the People's Republic in 1949, the Shanghainese were more Western, more worldly and, yes, more wealthy. Now Shanghai's rich again, and its people are out to prove that they and their compatriots can be something else: warmhearted. From Oct. 2 though 11, Shanghai is playing host to the Special Olympics World Summer Games, welcoming 7,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities from around the globe. China will field the biggest national team in Special Olympics history, sending some 1,200 competitors to the Games. It's only the second time the event will be held outside the United States, and the first time ever in Asia. For those reasons—and because China is a developing nation and home to one fifth of the human race—the October Games are a watershed for the movement started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968. Her son, Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, sees the country as an ideal platform for its work: promoting awareness of the roughly 200 million individuals he calls "the most forgotten people in the world." He adds, "There is no country greater than China that can show they need not be forgotten, that they must be included."

Hu Jintao could hardly agree more. Ever since becoming president in 2003, the Communist Party chief has worried about social tensions in China. More than two decades of lopsided double-digit economic growth have created potentially seismic disparities between the country's rich and poor. Hu's remedy is to urge Chinese to build a more compassionate and cohesive "harmonious society"—an ideal very much in tune with the Special Olympics. That's one reason Hu will be presiding over the opening ceremonies. "He'll be on the dais before nearly 8,000 of the world's most vulnerable people," says Shriver, calling the Games an opportunity for China to match its extraordinary economic success "with a comparable priority in terms of the human agenda."

No one beats China at public-awareness campaigns. From billboards around Shanghai, a chubby young Special Olympics athlete grins down at passersby, wearing a China national-team vest, a gold medal around her neck and lipstick kisses all over her face and shoulders. Smaller signs around town tout "civilization," "humanism" and "love." It's an admittedly tough sell, even in cosmopolitan Shanghai (and tougher in the hinterland, where stigma and misunderstanding are rife). Four years ago the city began setting up a network of "Sunshine Homes" to provide activities and vocational training for mentally challenged students ages 16 to 35. But at the Jixun home, a fairly typical example that offers instruction in basic English as well as marketable skills like cleaning and cooking, director Xuan Jun says only four of his more than 70 students have found jobs.

Still, attitudes are changing. They've "visibly improved" in the year since the city began preparing for the Special Olympics, says chief teacher Li Guanhua at Shanghai's Dong Li Feng Mei School, and much better than when she began working with special-needs pupils 15 years ago. The district's mainstream schools have been seeking to form partnerships with hers, and one city hotel even invited some of her students to visit and stay the night, to test out its accommodations before Special Olympics guests arrive. "This is a sign of society moving toward a kind of wenming [civilized] attitude," she says. The city's Buddies chain of convenience stores takes part in a government-run internship program for Sunshine Home alumni, and company vice president Luo Jinsong says customers are choosing to shop there because of the chain's commitment to helping people with disabilities.

Shanghai's compassion campaign is a counterpoint to Beijing's splashy makeover for the 2008 Olympic Games. Recently both cities have rousted entire neighborhoods to make way for high-rises, but Shanghai focused earlier on nurturing a new sense of community. In a city often known for overpriced real estate and shameless greed, Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng has publicly announced that the Special Olympics are not about fancy facilities and fat profits. The point, he said, is to build connections among grass-roots citizens, especially those with disabilities, creating "a civilized and harmonious environment for all." Shriver agrees: "Our movement is more about achievements of the spirit." President Hu himself couldn't have said it better.

Join the Discussion