The AIDS Walk: Promoting Public Service in China

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In this timely article, CDB Deputy Editor, Guo Ting, discusses the China AIDS Walk, a grassroots-organized public service event to call attention to discrimination against people living with HIV-AIDS. It will be held for the second time on the Jinshanling Great Wall on October 13, 2013.

During the 2012 World AIDS Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) HIV/AIDS Prevention Goodwill Ambassador and Ministry of Health’s AIDS Prevention spokesperson, Peng Liyuan, participated in related events and called for ending discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as greater compassion for HIV/AIDS patients. Since the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (hereafter, The Global Fund, 全球基金) ended its financial support to China, many social programs targeting HIV/AIDS have been facing resource constraints. Peng Liyuan’s appearance, following the 18th National Party Congress (held in November 2012), is a hopeful sign for grassroots organizations hoping to garner more domestic financial and policy support.

In addition, some HIV/AIDS prevention groups have worked diligently this year to expand the space for local fundraising and advocacy. On October 13, 2012, more than 100 volunteers wearing white shirts gathered at the Jinshanling Great Wall, located on the outskirts of Beijing to carry out an AIDS Walk, which has been on-going over the last six months. The project was organized by the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute (北京纪安德咨询中心) and borrowed its model from the experiences of AIDS Walks in the West, while at the same time experimenting with more localized models of fundraising, government cooperation, and media coverage.

Participatory Public Welfare

From 2010 to 2012, The Gender Health Education Institute’s Wei Jiangang, Li Guoxin, and Wei Tingting were selected by the Aibai Cultural Education Center  (爱白文化教育中心) and the Los Angeles LGBT Center for the China LGBT Community Leaders Training Program (中国同志社群领导力培养项目). While interning in Los Angeles, they participated in a week-long Los Angeles-to-San Francisco AIDS Walk.  The Walk not only helped to raise funds but also brought the community together and promoted a model of public service based on equality and participation.

In 2010, Wei Jiangang took over as the Executive Director of the Gender Health Education Institute. He has been engaged in AIDS prevention work since 2003. Compared to professional project officers who take responsibility for the entire project, Wei prefers participatory public service activities that rely largely on community mobilization. In his opinion, this is the current trend in the development of the public interest sector. In recent years, there has been a growing interest among the public in public service, from supervising the use of funds to directly participating in programs. The public is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with simply standing on the sidelines and donating money. People prefer to hear stories about people close to them who are relevant to their lives, rather than scripted advocacy and propaganda. Participatory models of public service provide this opportunity. As for the AIDS Walk itself, it puts people in direct contact with those living with HIV/AIDS, thereby alleviating discrimination towards them. “If you don’t understand something, it is easy to feel negatively about it. But, after your friends participate, it’s easier to believe what your friends say and consider changing your discriminatory views,” Wei said.

The AIDS Walk’s primary goal is to mobilize public participation. Since April 2012, the AIDS Walk Project has worked in different communities, embassies, cultural centers, and high schools, to organize almost 20 different activities of varying sizes in China, involving a total of more than 10,000 people. But for those engaged in public advocacy to fight discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, it has been difficult to change the public’s misunderstanding and discriminatory views by simply writing or talking about it. Thus each of the participants in the AIDS Walk gets involved in different ways, such as being a member of a fundraising group, donating financial support, participating in the Walk, or serving as a volunteer.

Fundraising teams consist of 1-3 volunteers and solicit donations from close friends, especially those who had previously donated to the AIDS Walk. Participants in the October Great Wall AIDS Walk consisted of teams that managed to meet specific fundraising goals (for student groups the target number was RMB300, while for groups of professionals, the target number was RMB500). Those unfamiliar with fundraising, or wanting a greater degree of participation in the event, can also choose to become an event volunteer. Once, a member of a fundraising group said to the manger of the AIDS Walk Project, Wei Tingting, “I feel so ashamed, I only raised a few hundred yuan.” A few hundred yuan is not a large number, but the money was made up of five- and ten-yuan notes collected from friends. “Once people start to give a little money, they’ll start to pay attention to what you’re doing. Consequently, even if someone only donates one yuan, it is still a positive step towards raising awareness of discrimination,” said Wei.

Bringing Advocacy into the Open

In recent years, some domestic LGBT groups have also organized other walk-style activities. In comparison, the AIDS Walk’s most notable characteristic is that it is not directed toward any specific community, but rather takes the form of open, public advocacy.

In order to carry out public fundraising and advocacy, the Gender Health Education Institute chose a public fundraising foundation with government-backing to serve as a partner ((Editor’s Note: Most NGOs or “social organizations” in China, even the more than 450,000 currently registered with Civil Affairs, cannot engage in public fundraising. Public fundraising authority is invested in a small group of foundations known as public fundraising foundations which currently number just over 1,000. Almost all of these foundations have some kind of government background. However, NGOs like the Gender Health Education Institution are able to publicly fundraise by setting up a “special fund” through a qualified foundation.)). They spent over a year looking before gaining the support of the China Foundation for Prevention of STDs and AIDS (中国预防性病艾滋病基金会). During their cooperation, project members often found that there were a prohibitive number of regulations, with a single matter requiring a long series of procedures and approval from various levels of government. Once the event had ended and there was a moment to reflect, however, the Gender Health Education Institute recognized that this official channel was crucial to the seamless execution of the event. ((Editor’s Note: The partnership with the Chinese Foundation for STDs and AIDS was critical not only for fundraising purposes but also for getting permission to hold large-scale, organized activities which are strictly controlled in China.))

The partnership with a public fundraising foundation enabled the organizers to take the AIDS Walk to universities and local community organizations in order to spread their message. Ambassadors from the British, U.S., Swiss and other embassies are willing to make appearances or give speeches because of the involvement of the public foundation (which lessens the perceived risk). Due to the foundation’s reputation, their activities often get full-page coverage in the mainstream media. This time, the AIDS Walk did not even invite any foreign media because the Gender Health Education Institute wanted to make a point of attracting coverage by the domestic mainstream media, and thereby getting the attention of the Chinese public.

In addition, the AIDS Walk invited several celebrities from the entertainment world to participate. Because Wei Jiangang attended the Shanghai Theatre Academy and has experience working in the entertainment industry, getting a hold of celebrities was not a big challenge. Moreover, bringing together people from the public service sector and celebrities is a winning combination for both sides. Celebrities though may choose not to support a public service event if it is not in their interest (and consider the risk involved with these events). With the participation of celebrities, the event also made the entertainment section of many news agencies and was able to reach a younger demographic.

As for why the China Foundation for Prevention of STD and AIDS chose to cooperate with the Gender Health Education Institute, Wei Jiangang believes the foundation felt the AIDS Walk had the potential to be an annual event. The model of public participation used by the organizers was also seen as a possible direction for the future development of public service in China. If the first year was successful and participants spread the word among their colleagues and friends, then the second year would attract even more participants and evolve into a positively reinforcing cycle, increasing participation on an annual basis. ((Editor’s Note: In 2013, the China Foundation for Prevention of STDs and AIDS decided not to continue its partnership. It felt the AIDS Walk involved too much work while attracting too little in donations. The Gender Health Education Institute then had to spend a number of months before locating a suitable replacement in the form of another public fundraising foundation, the China Population Welfare Foundation (中国人口福利基金会) which is working with the Institute on the 2013 events.))

There is No Such Thing as Free Public Service

On December 1, 2012 marking World AIDS Day, the Gender Health Education Institute announced that October’s Great Wall AIDS Walk consisted of 45 teams from six nations, including the UK, the US and France, with a total of 120 participants. Fundraising teams gathered donations from 3,400 supporters, with total donations surpassing 160,000 yuan. The Chinese Foundation for Prevention of STD and AIDS served as the cooperating partner, and took 7 percent of the total funds raised as their management fee. According to Wei Jiangang, the foundation previously said it would not take a fee for managing the activity in its first year. He thought, however, that because the foundation needed to communicate between many parties, provided administrative assistance, and had to cover administrative overhead and personnel expenses, that taking a management fee was not unreasonable. Moreover, seven percent of 160,000 yuan was not a large amount.

Among the funds raised, a percentage was used to cover the Gender Health Education Institute’s administrative costs. For the greater part of this year, the organization’s personnel costs, as well as 20 promotional and volunteer fundraising events organized by Wei Tingting, have cost approximately 70,000 yuan. Despite the expense, these activities are public awareness campaigns that serve the dual purpose of both fundraising and advocacy. The expenses for some events are unavoidable. In addition, the Gender Health Education Institute also independently raised funds to pay for administrative fees from the Barry and Martin’s Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Suzie Wong Club, and other individual donations, collecting more than 40,000 yuan to pay for administrative expenses, as well as getting 20,000 yuan in material support from the condom manufacturer Pleasure More.

Looking ahead to the 2013 AIDS Walk, Wei Jiangang said that a valuable lesson from this year’s event was learning that they must approach companies early on for donations. This year, because they did not approach companies until mid-year, several large companies said that while they were interested in supporting the event, they had already finalized their annual CSR budgets.  In addition, due to budget constraints, the website containing information concerning fundraising details and costs, built by friends who donated their skills, did not appear online as early as desired. Although Wei Tingting often tried to supplement the data and renew details in a timely manner, she never felt satisfied. If they had been more effective in raising funds for the administrative costs, they would have designed a more sophisticated website to better get their message out to the public.

The HIV/AIDS Sector Looks Forward to More “Positive Energy”

At this year’s AIDS Walk on the Great Wall, many Americans paid for their own tickets to fly to China and participate in the event, but there was little involvement from domestic HIV/AIDS partner organizations. Wei Jiangang believes that the culture of participating in public service programs differs between China and the West, saying that the culture of participation in public service has yet to take root domestically. He also believes that the only way to achieve better results is for people to look more positively on the work done by others. Public service requires both criticism and support. One cannot simply offer negative criticism, but instead must increase their participation and cooperation in order for HIV/AIDS prevention groups in China to mature.

The differences between East and West are not only restricted to the culture of public service organizations but extends to other areas. Wei Tingting vividly recalls asking her Chinese friends for donations to the AIDS Walk and hearing their responses. Her friends said: “Oh, is this a reputable activity?” The first thing they thought about was the negative consequences. Their mindset made it easy for people to find excuses not to participate.  Yet when she spoke with her foreign friends, they had the opposite reaction: “Oh, really? Where is it? I want to go!” or: “It’s really great what you’re doing!” Western culture encourages people to try many things. The AIDS Walk is just getting started, and in future years it is likely to see improvements as well as setbacks.  Given the obstacles they face, grassroots HIV/AIDS prevention organizations need greater encouragement and support. To use a popular phrase, they need more people to keep up the “positive energy.”

In Brief

In this timely article, CDB Deputy Editor, Guo Ting, discusses the China AIDS Walk, a grassroots-organized public service event to call attention to discrimination against people living with HIV-AIDS.
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