On a chilly, grey fall morning, my wife and I rose early to join my colleagues at the Dongzhimen subway stop in Beijing for the 2nd annual China AIDS Walk. We packed a lunch and snacks for the day – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and trail mix – and hopped into a taxi. When we arrived at the subway stop, we found other participants milling around, collecting their AIDS Walk T-shirts, and waiting to board the sleek tour buses that would take us up to the Jinshanling Great Wall near Chengde, about two hours drive northeast of Beijing.
Over the next half hour, we were joined by the rest of the China Development Brief team, seven in all, including one staff member from Greenpeace International’s China office who was tagging along. One of our staff also brought her eight-year old son who goes by the English name, Howard. Two colleagues texted to tell us they were not feeling well and would not be able to join us.
My CDB colleagues had been preparing for this day for weeks, and we had one of the larger teams participating with 10 people signed up. Organizing a team was relatively easy. You went onto the China AIDS Walk website, www.chinaaidswalk.org, and registered a team. Team members were asked to make a minimum online donation to the Walk and could also ask their friends and family to make a donation as well.
When my colleagues first told me about the Walk, I wasn’t sure why they were so excited about the event. These types of fundraising events were commonplace in the U.S. where I grew up. Then over the last few weeks, I began reading more about it, and had the chance to talk with staff at the Beijing Gender Health Institute, a grassroots NGO that is the driving force behind the China AIDS Walk, and I gradually began to realize what made the Walk so special.
The idea of an AIDS Walk was conceived in the U.S. The first AIDS Walk took place in Los Angeles in 1985. Since then, over a hundred AIDS Walks have taken place in communities around the U.S. and in other countries. According to the AIDS Walk Los Angeles website, the idea for the Walk was conceived by Craig Miller, a community activist whose approach was to combine “grassroots activism with fundraising and other campaign strategies to raise both awareness and urgently needed funds for the fight against AIDS.”
That animating idea nicely describes the thinking of the organizers of the China AIDS Walk who “believe that social progress is achieved not by a few people doing a lot, but by many people doing a little.” Not surprisingly, Xiaogang, the Gender Health Institute’s executive director, was inspired to bring the Walk to China after participating in an AIDS Walk in San Francisco. For Xiaogang, the AIDS Walk is part of a larger organizational strategy to bring together public advocacy, fundraising, and community participation to address challenges in medical care and discrimination faced by those living with AIDS, as well as the LGBT community in China. Thus, in addition to organizing the Walk, the Institute is also engaged in educating journalists to report on AIDS and LGBT issues, and has a ‘Queer China’ and ‘Queer University’ program to encourage the use of media and film to shine a sympathetic light on the AIDS and LGBT communities.
To understand why bringing the Walk to China is so significant, we only need to consider how challenging the Walk’s aims are: public advocacy, public fundraising, public participation, community organizing, and raising awareness about marginalized and vulnerable communities. And we are talking here about a grassroots NGO doing this, not the government. In China, all of these things can be sensitive, if not illegal.
Take, for example, what appears to be the most innocuous goal of public fundraising. The vast majority of NGOs in China, whether registered or not, are not permitted by law to engage in public fundraising. Only a small number of public fundraising foundations, most of them with close ties to the government, are authorized to do so. In addition, engaging in advocacy in public spaces, and inviting large numbers of people to join in, is very difficult, if not impossible in China.
In spite of these challenges, the organizers of the Walk managed to carry out an event that accomplished their aims, not once but twice. They organized a Walk on the Great Wall in 2012 that drew around 120 participants and raised more than 160,000 yuan. This year’s walk held on October 13 surpassed the 2012 numbers. It attracted more than 200 participants, about 150 of whom actually showed up to walk for about three hours on the Jinshanling Great Wall, and has so far raised more than 200,000 yuan which will be used to pay for the organizing costs and for medical treatment for those living with AIDS. How did they do it? The answer: by collaborating and being strategic.
Collaboration involved partnering with a government-backed public fundraising foundation. In 2012, that partner was the China Foundation for Prevention of STD/AIDS. This year, it was the China Population Welfare Foundation. This partnership allowed the organizers to fundraise legally through a special fund set up in the Foundation, and made it easier to get approvals to carry out the Walk. Being strategic meant choosing a “non-sensitive” area outside of Beijing’s administrative borders. The Jinshanling Great Wall was chosen because it was close to Beijing but part of Chengde city’s administration.
The participants in the Walk this year were a diverse and colorful bunch. They included foreigners and Chinese, children and the elderly, gay and straight, the healthy and those infected with AIDS, and one person dressed as a bright blue condom. Some dressed up in flamboyant outfits, while others waved China AIDS Walk flags and banners. Some of the younger walkers like Howard dashed up the steep steps leading to the towers while others took their time, taking in the view of the Wall as it snaked its way up and down the spines of the distant hills. There were even small events held at some of the watchtowers, such as a Beijing opera performance, and “Free Hugs” for those infected with AIDS.
At the end of the walk, some of the participants, including the man-sized blue condom, gathered on a makeshift stage to do a line dance to pop music. As we watched the dance, one of the walkers summed up the day when he said, “How many times do you see this happen in China?”