AIDS in China: More than an epidemic

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Since the first case of AIDS was diagnosed in China, people’s cognitions towards HIV/AIDS have varied over time yet one thing remains the same, that is the otherization of the group with HIV. The discussions about HIV/AIDS have gone far beyond its scale as a physiological disease and has turned into a social debate, which intensifies the public’s fear of HIV/AIDS and widens the distance between the HIV carriers and mainstream society.

When HIV was brought to China by an Argentinian traveler in 1985, the People’s Daily published a series of reports related to HIV/AIDS and described AIDS as a “contagious cancer” from the West. From 1985 to 1999, AIDS was identified as a capitalistic disease by the media in China, and most information and news were from foreign countries. HIV carriers in China were considered as misbehaving individuals who indulged in a capitalistic lifestyle of pleasure and comfort.

As blood selling was discovered as a way to make money in the early 1990s, peasants suffering from poverty went to sell blood for a price of 50 yuan per blood draw. The lack of hygienic environment, frequent reuse of needles and many other undisciplined practices led to cross infection – HIV was then widely spread out. Since HIV has a comparatively long incubation period, the large scale of cross infection was not fully exposed until the beginning of the 21st century. In 2003, the Chinese government submitted an application to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The application noted that among the 1.5 million peasants from 7 central provinces in China, about 250,000 of them were infected with HIV. Meanwhile, the number of migrant workers increased significantly and a competitive relationship existed between migrant workers and urbanites. Gradually, migrant workers were stereotyped as an AIDS population in lots of people’s minds.

Since the beginning of the 2010s, HIV/AIDS has been paired up with male homosexuality. The existence of the homosexual population was not admitted by the public in a long time, and the traditional paper media rarely touched on this topic. It was until 2010, when the microblog Weibo officially opened to public use, that discussions about homosexuality became a lot more common due to the anonymity, interactivity and equality of Internet media. Unfortunately, that was also the time when the rate of HIV/AIDS transferred by men who have sex with men rose significantly. From 2006 to 2014, HIV/AIDS transferred via homosexual activities increased from 2.5% to 25.8%. Although there were still 66.4% of HIV/AIDS cases caused by heterosexual behavior, most Internet media focused on the “homosexual transmission”. The bundle of AIDS and the gay population left people an impression that AIDS is a gay disease.

A recent article published by the Narada Insights (南都) identified three dynamics to explain the phenomenon of otherization. First of all, the fact that AIDS is fatal, infectious and incurable scares people and this scare generates a social taboo. Secondly, AIDS patients have always been characterized as a marginalized population that offends the mainstream. Lastly, the stigmatization of AIDS expedites social segregation. Many HIV carriers are afraid of revealing their identities, and thus further isolate themselves from others. Nowadays, HIV carriers are still marginalized in the society, along with their dignities, reputations and rights.