Justice Edwin Cameron on the stigmatization of people with AIDS in China

Every once in a while my work puts me in the presence of greatness. It did so yesterday when I had the pleasure and privilege of working with South African Justice Edwin Cameron, the only public official in all of Africa to publicly state that he has AIDS. He is probably also the only openly gay official on the continent. Oxford-educated and a Rhodes Scholar, Justice Cameron’s contributions to human rights and AIDS awareness, and his personal courage, cannot be exaggerated.

Yesterday he spoke with reporters in Beijing about a recent Renmin University-UNAIDS survey [pdf file] on the attitudes of Chinese people in six cities – Kunming, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Wuhan, Zhengzhou and Beijing – toward AIDS and AIDS sufferers. The survey sampled four groups, migrant workers, blue collar workers, white collar workers and youth, and it provides some depressing if not especially surprising findings:

– More than 48% of respondents thought they could contract HIV from a mosquito bite, and over 18% by having an HIV positive person sneeze or cough on them.

– Around 83% of interviewees had never searched for information on HIV/AIDS.

– Nearly 30 % did not know how to use a condom correctly.

– Only 19 % said they would use a condom if they had sex with a new partner.

– Nearly 11% of respondents had had sex with people who were not their spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend during the past 6 months; 42% of those respondents had not used condoms.

– 30% think HIV positive children should not be allowed to study at the same schools as uninfected children.

– Nearly 65% would be unwilling to live in same household with an HIV-infected person and 48% of interviewees would be unwilling to eat with an HIV-infected person.

In other words, we haven’t made much progress since I first started writing about this topic five years ago, at least not in terms of people’s attitudes and awareness. In terms of treatment, there has been huge progress in China, including anti-discrimination laws and free retrovirals for anyone with AIDS. The government needs to do much, more, however. Justice Cameron said, for example, that while the government provides free retrovirals for treatment of AIDS, people must still pay for medications for opportunistic infections from their own pockets, which can easily impoverish them.

I don’t really know what it is about natural leaders, the way they stand out in a crowd even when silent, and the way that they make those they’re talking with feel like they are the only person in the entire world. Edwin Cameron has those qualities, and the reporters he spoke to were visibly moved when he made an urgent appeal to them to encourage HIV sufferers in China to act as activists and to speak out the way he has. That is the only way to overcome stigma, he said., noting that what makes AIDS so insidious is that in many places it remains “a silent disease.” People suffer in silence for fear of ostracism if they tell the truth. This fear discourages Chinese people from getting tested, and those who are tested seek to hide their HIV status at all costs.

“This is a tragedy,” Justice Cameron said. “The Chinese government has a good treatment program. But there is a disturbing pattern here: 35-40,000 people in China are receiving antiviral treatment but more than double that number need treatment.” And they remain silent, and will die unnecessarily, as AIDS today is fully treatable. He pointed to activists in the US in the 1980s who generated a wave of publicity and awareness that put a human face on the disease, lessening the stigmatization in America dramatically. In China and Africa, there are few such activists. That is one of the keys to ending stimatization, he said: Africa needs a Magic Johnson to tell people they do not need to be ashamed of having AIDS.

It isn’t just a matter of fearing ostracism from friends and family, however. He said that AIDS sufferers still get turned away from health clinics in China’s provincial areas. The most poignant moment came when he described to reporters how he needed a special invitation sent from the Chinese government to its consulate in South Africa for him to be permitted entry into China. He added that when he comes to the US he must undergo an even more humiliating ordeal, being tested at the airport to determine whether his AIDS is under control (I am not sure exactly what they test for).

Hu and Wen have visited hospitals and spoken out on AIDS, he said, but efforts to educate the public remain seriously inadequate. “I beg them to do more,” Justice Cameron said.

Perhaps the most controversial topic he discussed was how markedly different the AIDS epidemic is in southern and western Africa, where the level of infection is above 11 percent. This is, he explained, “a mature epidemic, meaning that everone, gay or straight, young or old, knows someone who has died of AIDS.” This is unique; no other geography on earth has seen a massive AIDS epidemic that has spread beyond the main risk groups (injection drug users, plasma donors, “MSM” – men having sex with men – and sex trade workers). It was feared back in the time when I wrote my original post that China would be like Africa, home to a massive epidemic seeping into the mainstream, heterosexual population. It appears that will not happen. Justice Cameron said no one was sure why this phenomenon occurred only in a specific section of Africa, but said the reason could be genetic. In China, the number of people infected by shoddy plasma collection has leveled off, and the levels of infection are beginning to mirror those in other countries, with MSM and injection drug users being the most affected groups.

Working with Edwin Cameron was an inspiration. It was also inspiring to see the level of interest in this topic among the Chinese media. You can se some of the articles here and here. This was the high point of my nearly two years in China, and a day I’ll never forget.


“Execrable” takes on brand new dimensions

One cannot watch this must-see-to-believe clip without a sense of wonder that someone we once thought was basically a “decent” guy has allowed his campaign to sink to the level of pure, unmasked, unashamed and deranged McCarthyism. And that is not a word to use frivolously. This is one of those times when it’s called for.

The reporter does what reporters should do, except for one thing: he allowed the unctuous spokesperson to smear an innocent scholar, labeling him an anti-Semite. The reporter should have debunked the smear and demanded evidence. At least he pointed out the fact that “John McCain served as chairman of the International Republican Institute during the 1990s which provided grants worth $500,000 to the Center for Palestine Research and Studies which Khalidi co-founded.” Bastards.

Just a few more days of the most torturous race in history. I repeat my pledge: If McCain wins, I’ll stop this blog the next day, probably forever.


Eggs and an Open Thread

[Bumping this thread above the newer posts to keep a thread up top.]

I was really proud of myself. After the Olympics, I stopped spending a lot of money on big lunches by finally using my kitchen to cook breakfasts at home; I have a dreadful habit of skipping breakfast and then over-compensating with a big lunch. By making a three-egg omelet every morning, I’ve been spending pennies on a great breakfast that makes my whole day healthier. Or so I thought….

All of that was a build-up to this point: I just saw on CNN that eggs from northeast China have been tested and shown to contain dangerous levels of our favorite chemical, melamine. So I guess you really can’t win. And here I thought I was being so smart and so healthy and so thrifty. What do I do with the 9 eggs left in the refrigerator?

Feel free to talk about anything.

Update: I just had to include this new graphic that’s spreading around the Internets faster than Obama would spread your wealth.

It’s from this most brain-dead of sites You can go there and read what the sagely blogger says. However, before you allow her wisdom to sway you over, you can get some context about who she is from the video in this delightful post. If she isn’t qualified to preach to us about economics, who is?

Update II: [Edited – I decided it wasn’t so funny out of context – see what I’m referring to – the great McCain photoshop – in this great post.]


Attention white-collar expats working for MNCs

We are all going to feel the pinch.

White collar workers at Chinese branches of many multinational companies are now facing increased pressures and reduced salaries as their headquarters cut daily expenses to cope with the current global financial meltdown.

The crisis dealt its first blow by causing the closure of two toy factories in southern China’s Guangdong Province in mid October. The move resulted in a loss of over 6,000 jobs. Since then, more businesses in China, especially multinationals whose headquarters are in the center of the financial storm, are facing tough times.

The recession in the financial market hit most companies that make a profit from banks and financial companies. Wen Xiang, a mid-level manager at an American multinational company in Beijing, says he feels increased pressure in his job with his headquarters expecting more output despite scaling back on expenses.

Wen said his US-based headquarters wrongly expect businesses in China to remain strong, and are therefore pushing even harder on the local branch.

“But business has actually seen a decline with lesser demand. That means more responsibilities and less money to spend,” Wen said.

So, so, so many Western companies have hitched their stars to China and its 1.3 billion fat-walleted customers. And now they’ll be looking to their China offices to pull rabbits out of hats. China! That’s the answer! The one place where we can still make a big profit. The China Dream lives.

They’re all going to have a hard time of it because China’s getting hit, too. Not nearly as bad as Europe and the US, and it at least has the cash surplus to buy its way out of the hole – but it’s still going to suffer. Maybe the only recession-proof business out there is running a funeral home. And that’s not funny; I remember in Hong Kong when unemployment hit 8 percent in 2001 and young men were killing themselves rather than lose face over having to apply for welfare. It was around that time that i first decided to move to China where, you know, recession is impossible.


Spend, China, spend!

Desperate measures? In a rather unusual editorial today the NY Times urges China to spend more money to pick up the slack of reduced spending by the US and Europe, and thus help keep the global economy lubricated.

China has grown 13-fold over the last 30 years, thanks to hypercharged exports and white hot investment. But its economy is lopsided. Consumer spending amounts to little over a third of economic production, probably the lowest share in any country in the world. And its overwhelming dependence on exports has made it overwhelmingly vulnerable to changes in world demand.

The government in Beijing, which is running a huge budget surplus, also has money to spare.

The government has announced some measures to fuel domestic spending —including a tax cut on home purchases to revive an ailing housing market and a vague plan to invest in public works. But it must do more to unlock the savings of its citizens and encourage them to spend.

To do that it needs to rebuild the system of social insurance that fell apart when state-owned industries collapsed and were replaced by the private sector. Government investment in things like health care, education and pensions would help develop China’s middle class and its domestic market.

A boost to consumer spending would undoubtedly help China weather the economic storm. But by raising Chinese imports and reducing its dependence on exports, it would also help the rest of the world.

Are you listening, China? This isn’t just anybody telling you what you should do, it’s the New York Times!

Actually, there’s nothing in the editorial I disagree with. And if nothing else, it’s certainly confirmation of just how huge a role China now plays in the world economy – almost as if the pedestal has shifted from being the US to China. Is that what the editors meant to imply? I’m not sure, but the title of the editorial is “As China Goes, So Goes …” There’s definitely a new order rising.

Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see how receptive China is to this well-meaning if unsolicited advice from The Gray Lady.


“Who is Hu Jia?”

I am glad to see (via ESWN) that another blogger, and an especially good one, is asking the same simple question I asked last week.

… I’m not sure what [to] make of the EU choosing him over other Chinese activists. In the last chapter of Out of Mao’s Shadow, Philip Pan describes Hu as “one of the nation’s most outspoken human rights advocates”, and, “in the debate between the purists and the pragmatists, Hu was one of the purists. Some people thought he was too much of a self-promoter, too willing to confront and provoke the authorities… But if he sometimes behaved recklessly, he also never backed down.” Only we don’t get an idea what his “pure” and provocative actions have actually achieved.

While mentioning Hu Jia in passing during summarization, Pan devotes several full chapters to a number of other people whose stories are familiar to me, and to many Chinese. Among those, there are the Southern Metropolis Daily journalists, whose tactful but effective true journalism resulted in the government’s abolishing the unjust and cruel “shourong” system; there are the two authors who wrote the book An Investigation of China’s Peasantry that pushed for the eventually realized relaxation of the peasants’ unbearable tax burden; there is the retired army doctor who first exposed the severe reality of Beijing’s SARS disaster to the outside world, helping to avoid an even bigger calamity… All of those people also suffered punishment from the government. They were not purists, but they aimed for actual change instead of simply provoking.

I don’t know what the criteria are for the “prize for freedom of thought,” but why not give it to those people?

One thing that made Hu Jia stand out from the others, it seems, is that he is presently in prison while the others are not (though some of them have been).

Quite correct. Go back to my original post, where in the comments I discuss a conversation I had just yesterday with people whose work is connected to Hu’s causes. I also met someone who worked with Hu on an AIDS awareness project at BeiDa. All I’ll say is no one who actually works with him thinks he was the best candidate for this kind of recognition. Quite the contrary.

It’s intriguing to see how devoid of actual content the articles that praise him are: planted a few (very few) trees, brought roses to Tiananmen Square and criticized the CCP there, did some good blogging, got arrested and tried to use the Olympics as a soapbox to taunt and condemn the Party. And all those things are great. However, the difference between Hu and the other heroes cited above is simple: the others actually made huge strides for their causes. Arrest and publicity are not what they’re best known for, although they’ve been there and done that. They are known for advancing very specific causes and their being jailed or harassed was a sidebar to their activism – it wasn’t the headline. As Inside-Out says, “They were not purists, but they aimed for actual change instead of simply provoking.”

There’s an entire article cited in the earlier thread going on about Hu’s purity, for whatever that’s worth. I started off two weeks ago under the Hu spell, and I said he would be the best choice for the Nobel Peace Prize. A friend of mine then made a healthy argument about why I was wrong, which led me to track down people I know who actually know Hu Jia, or who’ve worked with his wife (who gets universal praise from all). I was really surprised. Not like he’s bad or undeserving of praise for bravery, but he is so down the list in terms of inspiring those around him and bringing meaningful change to China. He became everybody’s sacred cow because the foreign media created a halo around him that’s far bigger and brighter than his actual achievements.

Amazing, the things you can learn when you leave your preconceptions at the door and look for the different sides of a story. And I am still willing to learn on this one.


Open thread, or whatever

[Bumped up to keep an open thread on top.]

Busy with some big events. But want to share some links and open a thread now that the ones below are running out of steam.

First, a superb book review on the life of China’s female migrant workers who leave the countryside for work in cities like Dongguan.

The women’s road from village to factory job is lined with manipulators and cheats, and the schools, which busily copy one another’s curriculums, in turn teach the virtues of lying as a means of getting ahead. “People who are too honest in this society will lose out,” one instructor told the author.

That’s true in a lot of places. Here especially, for lots of reasons.

Second, a surprisingly intelligent Dowd column of Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama and the knee-jerk revulsion so many Americans feel at the notion of a Muslim in their midst.

In a gratifying “have you no sense of decency, Sir and Madam?” moment, Colin Powell went on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and talked about Khan, and the unseemly ways John McCain and Palin have been polarizing the country to try to get elected. It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo.

Even the Obama campaign has shied away from Muslims. The candidate has gone to synagogues but no mosques, and the campaign was embarrassed when it turned out that two young women in headscarves had not been allowed to stand behind Obama during a speech in Detroit because aides did not want them in the TV shot.

Violence in Taiwan:

Taiwanese television showed Zhang Mingqing, vice chairman of a mainland association handling cross-strait relations, lying on the ground beside his eyeglasses. Other footage showed an elderly woman hitting his car window with her cane and a pro-independence activist with a green headband stomping on the roof of the car.

That followed an incident Monday in which about 200 demonstrators yelled, cursed and heckled Zhang as he took the podium at Tainan National University of the Arts. Zhang was in Taiwan for an academic symposium, ostensibly in a nonofficial capacity. Taiwan and China often communicate through unofficial channels, given their strained relations.

Finally, Pomfret sounds gloomy about how the global financial crisis will affect China.

Any time the official New China News Agency files a piece with the headline: “Experts: China’s economy has ability to recover from slowdown,” it’s time to worry about China’s economy. You’ve already heard the news, no doubt.

Five straight quarters of slower growth. China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced this week that the nation’s economy grew at an annual rate of 9 percent in the quarter ending Sept. 30, the lowest since 2003 — when the SARS epidemic turned the economy upside down. Exports are shrinking so fast that some economists are predicting the sector will not grow at all next year.

More ominously for “social stability,” however, are the lay-offs. More than half of China’s 7,000 plus toy makers are out of business. More than 67,000 small- and medium-sized enterprises have gone belly up in the first nine months of this year, according to a report in the China Business News this week. There are an increasing number of reports about labor unrest among those turfed out of work.

For the record, I think Pomfret’s view is way too bleak. China has what it takes to deal with the situation: Money.

I think the only good news today is that Al Qaeda “endorsed” McCain. They endorsed Kerry the last time and look what happened.


Hu Jia wins Sakharov Prize for Freedom

A late-night quickie:

The European Parliament on Thursday awarded its top human rights prize to jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia despite warnings from China that its relations with the 27-nation bloc would be seriously damaged if it did so.

In selecting Hu to receive the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European lawmakers said they are “sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China.” Hu has advocated for the rights of Chinese citizens with HIV-AIDS and chronicled the arrest, detention and abuse of other activists.

After I posted a few weeks ago that I felt Hu was deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, I had an opportunity to discuss his career with friends of mine (Westerners involved in government) who are much more familiar with his activities than I. Since then, I’ve had rather mixed feelings about Hu Jia.

His arrest is certainly prima facie evidence that today’s CCP retains much of the prickly, pig-headed, uptight, asinine qualities of yore. And yet, there’s no denying Hu was often a self-promoter, practically shouting at the government, “Arrest me,” especially considering his timing. (He was warned that such antics right before the Olympic Games would not be tolerated, and he persisted in a most in-your-face manner.) None of that even begins to justify his arrest, but maybe it raises questions about Hu’s judgment and motivations?

Hu did dedicate much of his time to raising awareness of AIDS and environmental issues in China. But my friends, one of whom works at the United Nations, challenged me about what Hu has actually done aside from draw attention to himself and get himself arrested. I mentioned a project he launched to help AIDS orphans in Henan, and they countered that it was more hype than anything else. “Basically he wrote some emails,” my friend countered. “Do we award the Nobel Prize to someone who just sent out emails?” Before anyone jumps on a high horse and says I’m slandering Hu Jia (whom I’ve defended many times on this blog), please understand I am only saying I don’t know – that maybe he’s an example of our emotions (mine included) making us jump to conclusions. Or maybe he actually did deserve the Nobel Prize. As I said, mixed feelings.

Whether he deserves the Sakharov Prize is up for debate, as with any prize for political activism. In any case, if this inspires greater scrutiny of China’s repressive tendencies, paranoia and eagerness to arrest anyone who threatens to shed light on them, then I’m glad Hu Jia won.

I meant to put up a one-liner, and suddenly it became a tome. Good night.


America’s first black president

Kristof, my least favorite Times columnist after all the other Times columnists aside from Paul Krugman, tells the story of his conversation this week with a Chinese woman in Beijing about the fact that America is about to elect Obama to be president.

She: Obama? But he’s the black man, isn’t he?

Me: Yes, exactly.

She: But surely a black man couldn’t become president of the United States?

Me: It looks as if he’ll be elected.

She: But president? That’s such an important job! In America, I thought blacks were janitors and laborers.

Me: No, blacks have all kinds of jobs.

She: What do white people think about that, about getting a black president? Are they upset? Are they angry?

Me: No, of course not! If Obama is elected, it’ll be because white people voted for him.

[Long pause.]

She: Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country!

Kristof’s point in the column is that the entire world feels the same way, awed and amazed that America can do this, and that it could indicate a return to the kinder, gentler America envisioned by Bush I. The world is ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Kristof concludes,

Yet if this election goes as the polls suggest, we may find a path to restore America’s global influence — and thus to achieve some of our international objectives — in part because the world is concluding that Americans can, after all, see beyond a person’s epidermis.

On a related note: This is maybe the best Joe Klein article ever (and he used to be really good back in the 90s, started to suck in the Bush years and has slowly but steadily returned to his senses). It’s about why Obama is going to be America;s first back presidentRead that first page about Obama’s meeting with General Petraeus. I was definitely impressed. The most personal and most interesting piece I’ve read on Obama, and just about any politician.

One reader here said a couple of months ago, “You and I both know America isn’t ready to elect a black man president.” And even today he’s sticking to his guns on that. Sorry “my friends” (as McCain would say), but it’s going to happen and we’d better all get used to it. Read the article, and maybe you’ll feel a little better about him. I know, it’s hard not to be cynical about any politician, especially when we harbor strong feelings about them. All I can say is that’s when we should make an extra effort to see the other side of the story. Because things are never – pardon the expression – so black and white.

Contrary to my “America isn’t ready” friend, I believe the election of our first black president is not only a distinct possibility but an inevitability. (The just-like-us-plain-folks Joe-six-pack lovin’ soccer mom certainly didn’t give his opponent any advantages.)

Sorry if that post sprawled a bit. Long day.


Colin Powell

I am lifting the photo and the quote from this site. Because Powell addressed an issue of tremendous importance, and he had the bravery to answer that vile question, “Isn’t Obama a Muslim”? with the noble words McCain himself should have uttered when confronted with similar allegations.

Here is what Colin Powell said yesterday when he announced his endorsement of Obama.

And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?

…I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.

Powell, as I said before, screwed up terribly and can’t be entirely forgiven for his role in leading us into a stupid, pointless and horrific war. But he has proven what I always believed about him, namely that he is a decent person who never belonged in the toxic environment known as the Bush Administration. I feel a little prouder to be an American when I read the words above, as I also feel ashamed of those among us who have fomented racism and hatred, and cynically used it as a political tool. (I’m talking to you and you, among others.)

As the reporter said, turning on Powell now would be the costiest error for the GOP, keeping his endorsement of Obama on the front pages. Let’s hope Rush and Michelle and the like keep it up.