I extended my stay in Hong Kong in order to participate in the first ever Clinton Global Initiative Asia conference happening in the city Dec. 2-3. Becky Yang, a fellow Vanderbilt graduate and staff member of CGI, informed me about this event, which happened to coincide with my stay in HK. Initially I was only going to work one day before the actual event assisting the staff in charge of the volunteers with registering the volunteers, but after being there and helping out, I could feel the energy and excitement of the event and knew I would regret not staying. About 12 hours before my flight to Beijing was to leave, I called the airline and changed my flight (it was free to change it! I highly recommend Cathay Pacific airlines) to a few days later in order to participate in this groundbreaking event. I was staying with a fellow Vanderbilt graduate in Hong Kong named Jen Hammonds and her family, and they were luckily most gracious in allowing me to stay with them a few extra days! After getting everything arranged to accommodate my last minute spontaneity, I geared up for an early start the next morning to help set-up the event. I was really fortunate to be able to volunteer at CGI Asia. More than 500 people applied to volunteer, and only about 150 were accepted. Most of the volunteers came from Hong Kong (for the practical purpose of making sure that the volunteers could make it—imagine if a lot of the volunteers had been coming from Thailand and were stranded at the airport at the time!), but since Hong Kong is such a global city, the volunteers hailed from all over the world.
I should probably explain a little bit more what the Clinton Global Initiative is exactly. CGI was started in 2005 by former President Bill Clinton to “turn ideas into action and help our world move beyond the current state of globalization to a more integrated global community of shared benefits, responsibilities, and values.” CGI meetings bring together former and current heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, philanthropists, CEOs, directors of NGOs, and prominent members of the media. All the participants at the conference put forth a Commitment to Action, which translates practical goals into meaningful results. Commitments vary in size and duration and can focus on diverse regions, issues, and types of activities. Many commitments are the result of new and diverse partnerships across different sectors. The CGI Asia conference focused on the areas of education, energy and climate change, and public health, and bringing leaders in these fields and from around Asia to develop new ideas and approaches to tackling these issues. If members fail to reach their commitments, they are not invited back to the conference the next year.
I helped with a wide variety of activities at the conference. All of the work of the volunteers was very behind the scenes, so we definitely weren’t schmoozing with the participants or Bill Clinton, but just being a part of this experience was amazing. Getting to know the other volunteers was also really rewarding. I had the chance to get to know university students from mainland China studying in the fields of journalism and law, students studying abroad in Hong Kong, a flight attendant from Thailand, and people from all across Asia. While serving as a greeter in the lobby, I also got a chance to say hi to Jet Li! Because there were more than enough volunteers and staff around to make the event run smoothly, I also had many opportunities to sit in on some of the panel discussions and debates. During these I heard Bill Clinton speak many times, as well as Lee Kwan Yew (the former Prime Minister of Singapore), current president of the Philippines Gloria Arroyo, China’s foreign minister, the current president of Mongolia Nambaryn Enkhbayar, and many other movers and shakers in Asia. One of the most interesting discussions I heard that was highly relevant to my project was a panel discussion on diversity in Asia. In this discussion, the Mongolian president said that the word “diversity” should be replaced with freedom, and the Asian idea of “unity” should be replaced with responsibility. I found it interesting that he associated the idea of diversity as directly interchangeable with freedom, and that unity mean responsibility. Asia is interesting in its diversity. Some countries, such as India, are incredibly diverse place while countries such as Korea as considered highly homogenous. President Enkhbayar feels Asia cannot have complete freedom in the sense of anarchy but it also can’t have complete responsibility in the sense of authoritarianism.
I was really happy that I decided to stay and participate in the CGI Asia Conference (I even got to shake Bill Clinton’s hand on the last day!) Hong Kong was a great city, and I was lucky to have so many interesting opportunities while there. Also, it was so much warmer than Beijing, which I wouldn’t appreciate fully until arriving in Beijing on the coldest day of the year thus far! More on Beijing later!