An unprecedented number of university graduates from the class of 2003 have sought volunteer positions in the poor and remote western parts of the country - an area that people traditionally avoid. This year, 43,763 people responded to the China Youth Volunteer Service Centre's appeal for 6,000 graduates to go west. Those who pass health checks and strength-of-character interviews will stay for up to two years in remote locations, such as rural Tibet, to teach, practise medicine, work in agriculture or organise youth activities. Graduates say they see the volunteer work as a way to help the west develop, help the country as a whole and gain experience. Li Guibao, a Jilin province college graduate, will spend a year in Tibet. 'It's not just a poor area, it's a place where you can broaden your experience,' he said. 'Because of the increase in applicants, going to work now is hard.' He is unsure where he will go after Tibet but said he would stay in the west if he liked it there. 'My friends and family support me quite a bit,' Mr Li said. Since late 1999, the authorities have been urging people from the more developed, more populated eastern seaboard cities to move west to regions such as Gansu and Xinjiang as part of a campaign to develop the region. People normally resist the government's go-west call unless given financial incentives. The presence of Han Chinese people also deters ethnic separatist activities. But over the past decade, as urban incomes increase, younger people are taking new interest in volunteer work. College graduates want to help themselves as well as China, said Liao Ken, an information officer with the Youth Volunteer Service Centre. He added the tough job market was 'a factor' in the flood of applications. If the job market remains tough in the east over the coming years, these 6,000 graduates may prefer to stay in the west, suggested Ding Jingping, of the Watson Wyatt human resources consulting firm in Beijing. He said companies in larger western cities would respond well to their applications. 'If you go, you have to have an alternative motive,' said Mr Ding, suggesting a surge in volunteer spirit was behind the increase. 'The west has no way to attract these people.'