Beijing's multilingual 24h helpline weaves safety net for expats

Italian vlogger Rachele Longhi did not realize the hotline "12345" could provide multilingual support to foreigners until she visited the operation center in Beijing.

Italian vlogger Rachele Longhi did not realize China's unified service hotline "12345" could provide multilingual support to foreigners until she visited the hotline's operation center in Beijing.

The center recently invited Rachele and other guests from countries including Colombia and France for a tour of the service center so they could share their experience with more foreigners about the center's functioning.

Located in an office of China Unicom, one of the country's major telecommunications, the "12345" service center has several English-language volunteers from the Beijing Foreign Studies University who are working with more than 1,000 Chinese-language operators.

Working in shifts for the 24-hour service, the English-language operators are trained to distinguish other languages. They can transfer the non-English calls to service lines of seven other languages — French, German, Russian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and Arabic.

"The hotline service is becoming international, bringing great convenience to foreigners living in Beijing as well as visitors from overseas to the city," said Longhi, after concluding detailed conversations with the operators during the tour.

"There is also a similar hotline in Italy, but not as universal as the one in Beijing," she said.

The service hotline "12345" serves as a gateway for callers to contact specific service departments in China. Compared with China's "110" and "119" emergency hotlines, "12345" mainly deals with non-urgent matters.

"Little help sometimes can make a big difference, especially for those who live in a foreign land with language barriers," said Shu Rui, who has been working with the hotline's multilingual service since its official launch in Beijing in 2010.

The hotline service center, in cooperation with the Beijing Foreign Studies University, sorts out frequently asked questions by the foreigners and timely formats the answers for multilingual service staff so that they can better address those queries, Shu added.

"After the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, we have helped foreign callers understand the epidemic control policies such as home quarantine and assisted them in communicating with community service staff," Shu said, adding that she has even helped foreigners obtain nucleic acid test results and taught them using health codes on their mobile phones.

With the principle of "one by one, everything has an answer," the hotline service in Beijing handled 11 million cases in 2020, up 55 percent year on year.

"In the run-up to the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the hotline center plans to step up recruitment and training of foreign language staff and improve the overall quality of the multilingual service," said Feng Yingyi, deputy director of the "12345" Beijing hotline service center.

If the hotline gets a phone call where the caller's language is not covered by the hotline service, the center can find an interpreter from the university and activate the third-party call mode to communicate with the caller, Feng said.

China Unicom also sends text messages to foreigners at airports and high-speed railway stations in Beijing, notifying them to dial the "12345" hotline in case of any problems.

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