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Taking China’s Fight Against AIDS Online

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Asia Life

Taking China’s Fight Against AIDS Online

The HIV/AIDS fight in China is going online, with support from an unlikely ally: the Chinese government.

As China becomes increasingly connected, LGBT organizations are turning to the Web to combat misinformation on HIV/AIDS. While China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, significant societal stigma remains regarding men who have sex with men; one of the primary at-risk populations for the disease. Official figures from October 2015 estimate that 575,000 people in the country are now living with HIV or AIDS.

“Gays in China remain very afraid of being publicly revealed,” explains Bu Jiaquing, the founder of Qing Ai, a Shanghai NGO focused on HIV/AIDS prevention. “We didn’t start using the Internet because we wanted to be innovative, but rather to lend a voice and access to information to people that the government won’t be able to find but who are themselves most at risk for getting HIV.”

Qing Ai first began reaching out through Chinese instant messenger service QQ because it allowed users to ask questions while remaining anonymous. The organization has now reached over a million followers and extended their online activities to the popular messaging app WeChat w here they maintain an information channel on HIV and a “chatroom for the LGBT community where they can come and discuss their problems.”

They are now working towards launching a more sophisticated WeChat platform that will allow users to book reservations to get tested for HIV at any branch of the Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while accompanied by trained volunteers. In parallel, they plan on donating free home HIV tests through the shopping website Taobao.

Similarly leading the charge in online HIV prevention campaigns is China’s most popular gay dating app: Blued. With more than 15 million mostly Chinese users, Blued is currently the global leader in location-based apps of its kind. It stands ahead of such Western competitors as Grindr through its integration of HIV/AIDS prevention tools and its active cooperation with Chinese health agencies.

The app includes a small AIDS ribbon, and provides updated information about the virus and prevention techniques, monthly banners on HIV testing, as well as a clinic function that enables users to find the nearest appropriate medical and testing facilities. Blued also hosts free HIV testing at its offices.

Blued was founded in 2012 by Geng Le, a former police officer, and emerged from one the first online gay discussion forums in China, Danlan. According to Han Han, Blued’s director of public welfare, Danlan realized that many users, including heterosexuals, were accessing the site to ask questions about HIV/AIDS.

Danlan then reached out to the government and began hosting a research section on AIDS transmission, obtained in cooperation with United Nations agencies and Chinese health agencies.”

After Geng Le moved his headquarters to Beijing in 2008, he was approached by the Beijing Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with the idea of establishing a partnership. “These days we cooperate closely with the Beijing CDC and about 80 percent of the city’s individual district CDCs; with the level of cooperation varying from financial support for AIDS prevention activities and events, to information materials.”

Blued also maintains “an open line of communication” with Chinese health authorities. “The government realizes that they need our support,” Han suggests, citing the fact that Blued’s popularity as a dating app has allowed it to reach a much wider range of China’s gay community.

“The top leadership of the central government is making AIDS a special priority. Li Keqiang, in particular, has made AIDS intervention a topic of special importance … which is partly because Peng Liyuan, Xi Jinping’s wife, has made AIDS intervention her focus.” Her longtime engagement “has had a bolstering effect on all AIDS related NGOs efforts and created greater partnerships with the CDC.”

“Now,” Han concludes, “the government is willing to cooperate more.”

When asked about Qing Ai’s relationship with the government, Bu Jiaquing is more circumspect. “The government needs us. That’s why they reached out to us. Because they cannot find all the people with HIV alone,” he said.

“China has had the needed AIDS legislation for a decade, but there was no sanctions against officials or departments who didn’t follow it. However, top government leaders are now stating it as a priority, so all branches of the Chinese government have to do something … Overall, since 2007, the level of information has become much better.”

Like Han, Bu believes that Peng Liyuan’s AIDS ambassadorship has indirectly had a positive effect for most NGOs focused on HIV prevention.

For Qing Ai, government support takes the form of free offices and donated HIV tests from the Shanghai CDC. Nonetheless, “it is not enough financial support to survive on, and our organization is heavily dependent on donations.”

Positive domestic media coverage on the types of online campaigns ran by groups like his matters to the government authorities, he clarifies, “who are becoming somewhat more willing” to work with a wider group of AIDS-focused NGOs.

“I wouldn’t say that they trust our organization, but they need us.”

Fanny Potkin is a graduate student and freelance writer who works on China and Southeast Asia. Additional translation assistance provided by Ben Mason and Da Som Kang.