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Forget the Olympic torch, how about a hug?

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A member of the China Local-International Care Campaign hugging a local woman in Liaoyuan, China. (Courtesy of Shounan Ho)

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A member of the China Local-International Care Campaign hugging a local woman in Liaoyuan, China. (Courtesy of Shounan Ho)

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A member of the China Local-International Care Campaign hugging a local woman in Liaoyuan, China. (Courtesy of Shounan Ho)

JiaLong Xiao got some disappointing news last January: He’d failed the entrance exam of Beijing University’s legal program for the fourth time. It was a blow that could have been more painful if not for the encouragement and comforting hugs of Xiao’s international friends.

With these embraces, he had a revelation. “Hugging is one of the best social ways of spreading happiness and transferring warmth,” he recently said through a translator. Outside of immediate family and close friends, however, it’s also a very un-Chinese thing to do.

So a few months ago he and a small group of local and foreign friends created the China Local-International Care Campaign. They are trying to spread this warmth to people living in towns and cities across northeastern China.

They see their effort as an extension of the Olympics that are coming to Beijing this summer, a way to bring the transnational spirit of the games to communities that don’t often get visitors from beyond China’s borders.

“People just don’t think to go to these cities,” said Shounan Ho, an American member of the group from Los Angeles who’s working on a research project about northeastern China as a Fulbright Scholar. “But you still have a vast majority of Chinese people living in urban cities like these.”

As for the recent protests against Chinas's Tibetan policies that have marred the Olympics torch relay in various parts of the world, members of the hugging group say they just feel baffled. "I still can't understand why they are doing this," said Dong Dong, an electrical engineering student at Jilin University, who thinks her country deserves having its turn to host the Olympics. "The good thing is the foreign countries have made a lot of efforts to guarantee the procedure of the torch."

The members, who hail from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Africa, hope their events will give them and the Chinese people they meet--and hug--a chance to learn about each other’s cultures and to express goodwill toward people of different nationalities.

They spread their message not only with embraces: Each campaigner wears a red chest sash in honor of traditional Chinese practice at public events. The sash reads, “Embrace the Olympics. Embrace the world. Embrace you and me.”

“This isn’t just China’s Olympics,” said Xiao. “This is the world’s Olympics.”

Hugging is an unusual way to bring people together in China. Typically, the Chinese hug relatives and friends, but they are more reserved when greeting people outside their intimate circles, usually giving a nod of the head.

“It takes a while for people to get physical with each other. Even among friends, touching comes into the equation after a fairly lengthy process,” said Scott Seligman, former director of development and government relations for the U.S.-China Business Council, whose own experiences as a businessman in Taiwan and mainland China in the 1970s and ’80s inspired him to write the book “Chinese Business Etiquette: A Guide to Protocol, Manners, and Culture in the People’s Republic of China.”

So far, having held several hugging events in Liaoyuan and Changchun, the campaigners say local people have responded positively. “They were hesitant to participate, but they still wanted to look at it,” said Xiao. “But when I started to explain the concept to them, they wanted to participate.”

For some, the message truly resonates. Ho remembers one encounter in particular with an elderly man from Liaoyuan.

“He said, ‘I hope Americans can understand China better, can enjoy China better, can find happiness here,’” she said. “He was very sincere and warm, like he meant this from the bottom of his heart.”

This is not the first time a hugging campaign has been waged in China. Two years ago, Chinese citizens held a free hugging event in Beijing as part of the Free Hug Movement--an international effort to get strangers to hug. But the event broke up when the police arrested and then briefly detained several members.

Xiao said that he did not know of these arrests when he started his own campaign, but added that he informed the police before holding a recent event.

“I explained to them our overall plan,” he said. “And the police officers looked at me and said this was a good thing, just do it.”

The care campaign is also taking its movement beyond hugging and international exchange. The group is adding a fundraising component to its effort, hoping to get local businesses to sponsor each hug. Donations would then go to charities in northeastern China, a region that has suffered from economic stagnation in recent years.

Working toward establishing his movement as a nongovernmental organization, Xiao hopes their work will one day extend to other parts of his country.

But when the Olympic torch makes its way through northeastern China on July 17 and 18, Xiao plans to be in Changchun to watch the flame go by.

E-mail: msl2003@columbia.edu