China response to HIV/AIDS epidemic questioned

The conservative government’s resistance in promoting safe sex nationwide, for example, at schools and colleges is a major hurdle in educating the masses about HIV/AIDS. The China AIDS walk tries to draw attention to this and the stigma and widespread discrimination in education and employment are also reasons why it has become a firm fixture among activists and supporters in the calendar.

Under clear blue skies, the setting for the fourth China AIDS Walk may indeed have been spectacular. Given the choice, however, organizers of this event held every fall at the Great Wall would much rather have marched somewhere near downtown Beijing instead.The purpose of the walk is to help raise public awareness about HIV/AIDS and to end discrimination against those with the virus here in China. But such is the sorry state of grassroots activism up and down the country nowadays that visible gatherings of any sorts by a sizeable number of people are considered a security threat by the Communist government.

Even mini-marches with the support of U.N.-backed agencies are quickly disbanded by the authorities here. Can you then imagine 160 people in three coaches — the maximum capacity allowed without being what organizers say “disruptive” — doing that near Tiananmen Square brandishing all kinds of HIV/AIDS banners, accompanied by a bright-red dancing condom to highlight safe sex?!

According to the latest figures released by UNAIDS in its ‘2015 China AIDS Response Progress Report’, 296,000 people had HIV in China at the end of 2014 and 205,000 of those had AIDS. There’s also an estimated 280,000 people who do not know their status.

In a country of 1.35 billion people, these are very low figures. Yet, the amount spent by the central government in treating and combating the virus is disproportionately astronomical.

This seemingly contradictory and heavy-handed attitude does sadly detract from what many Beijing-based international officials describe to the Washington Blade as China’s “unrivalled devotion and financial contribution” to finding a cure for HIV/AIDS.

CN¥6 billion ($940 million) alone was spent last year by Beijing on everything from blood testing to research and medicine. International officials all agree that unlike other developed western countries, China actually “puts its money where its mouth is” when it comes to tackling HIV/AIDS — which is always free for those with the viruses.

They have all the data on all new cases every year in every province — a particular obsession of the Communist Party — be it in the sex industry or through drug use or unsafe sex.

But what holds China back is how conservative government officials are in dealing with anything vaguely squeamish. Their resistance in promoting safe sex nationwide, for example, at schools and colleges is a major hurdle in educating the masses about HIV/AIDS.

Even more damning are individual hospitals and local authorities, which systematically discriminate against HIV/AIDS patients by refusing to admit them — in defiance of central government policy.

This lack of reinforcement is mostly down to prejudice and irrational fear among trained medical workers and blood testers coming in contact with anyone with these viruses. Consequently, many patients go untreated unless they can find the social services and NGOs that will tend to them.

Furthermore, the stigma and widespread discrimination in education and employment are also reasons why the China AIDS Walk has become a firm fixture among activists and supporters in the calendar. It’s also spread to other Chinese cities such as Taiyuan and, in Guangzhou late last year, 300 activists climbed the Canton Tower — the fifth-tallest freestanding structure in the world — just before World AIDS Day.

As of late September, $20,000 had been raised for this AIDS walk along the Great Wall — with the Chinese media conglomerate, Tencent, promising to match every Yuan donated. The beneficiary this year is a children’s home in Sichuan province in southwestern China where a year’s supply of baby formula will be provided to over 100 children whose mothers are infected with HIV/AIDS.

But realistically, what can such a march achieve under what seems like a wave of clampdown on grassroots civic movements across China?

Bearing in mind also that the vast majority of the walkers either already work in social services and know someone with HIV/AIDS, or move in social circles and come from backgrounds with a more liberal attitude to those with HIV/AIDS.

Arguably then, this lack of ‘diversity’ among the participants and the restriction on the number of walkers somewhat undermined the raison d’être of the event.

April, a long-time Beijing-based social worker taking part for the first time, agrees.

“The impact of the walk is probably limited. But if one person was so affected and moved by what he/she saw and felt compelled to ‘educate’ maybe 10 other people unfamiliar with the subject, then we’ve achieved something.”

“AIDS sufferers have a much bigger problem than LGBTs,” April added. “But many people in China are really ignorant and uneducated. One of the people who spoke at the event even said health workers sometimes faint when they discover you have HIV. Hopefully, we will have helped changed the perception for one or two of the newcomers and helped them understand.”

For another participant, HIV-sufferer Liu JiuLong from Guangxi in southwest China — who has just completed the first-ever AIDS ride in China through 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) and 27 cities in 43 days — any event that can help eliminate prejudice, stigma and ignorance is crucial — especially in health care.

“Some hospitals will not treat us with HIV and just push us out. Even when I argue with them, they just ignore me. If they don’t want to do the operation, they won’t do it,” said Liu sporting a bejeweled Roman toga at a particularly uneven section of the wall.

“We have no rights. Personally, I’m not concerned if people know about my status, or who I’m in a relationship with or who I work and live with. All I care about is whether a hospital I go into will operate on me or not,” he continued.

“I can keep quiet about my status to prevent discrimination. But hospitals will take tests and I cannot hide. Many get rejected. All these are the responsibilities of the central and local governments. We need lawyers who can help fight out cause – and a walk like this is what we need to raise awareness”, added Liu holding aloft a “I wanna fall in love with HIV positive people’ sign for unsuspecting passersby.

As for the organizers of China AIDS Walk, however, being able to march is better than nothing at all.

“The Great Wall is a good substitute,” said one insider to the Blade, mindful that in 2014 their event had to be diverted to another section of the Great Wall when police intervened just as the party was setting off on their coaches from downtown Beijing.

No such problems this year — thankfully. Organizers were quietly confident that disruption would have been unlikely due to Chinese leader, Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.S. Any civil crackdown, they argued, could have created unnecessary distraction to what was a highly orchestrated state visit by Xi to Seattle, the White House and the U.N. — even if his stay was completely overshadowed by that of Pope Francis (whom, ironically, the Chinese government does not recognize.)

That’s not to say the build-up to the walk itself wasn’t entirely trouble-free. Organizers were forever anticipating a knock on the door by the authorities with intimidation and unspecified threats. Even the actual date of the walk itself was kept secret until late on.

Such jumpiness though is in stark contrast to 2012 when the inaugural walk gained widespread attention in the English-language state media. The China Daily newspaper, for example, reported on the event then but never bothered in 2014 or 2015.

This is very much in line with a gradual trend in which the media is being made to toe the party line, and civic action instigated by grassroots movements are mercilessly clamped down – not just AIDS awareness and LGBT rights but also environmentalists, domestic violence and women’s rights.

In the latter’s case, feminists and activists across China have come under unprecedented attacks this year just as Xi stood alongside U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the recent New York summit on gender equality and women’s empowerment the Chinese government is co-hosting.

Meanwhile, the newspaper blackout of the AIDS walk was made all the more ironic when the state media here gleefully lapped up their glamorous Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan’s tour of the Bill Gates-founded Fred Hutchinson Center research center in Seattle in September. Its specialty? To find a cure for HIV/AIDS, with Peng praising its contributions in helping people “to live longer and better lives.”

After all, Mrs Xi Jinping IS the U.N. Goodwill and WHO Ambassador and self-proclaimed, decade-long ‘advocate for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.’

Small comfort for the many grassroots HIV/AIDS activists across this land.