amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Broadcasting HIV Awareness in China

JC-IMAGE250.jpgUNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for China James Chau
(Photo credit: Camilla Douraghy)

The TREAT Asia Report Interview: UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador and News Anchor James Chau

James Chau was appointed as the first National UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for China in 2009. He works with the United Nations to fight HIV-related discrimination and stigma and hosted the opening ceremony of the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. As a journalist, he has worked as a news anchor and correspondent for China Central Television's English channel, CCTV-9, for ten years and has interviewed world leaders including Ban Ki-moon, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Robert Mugabe. He has also appeared on BBC World as a guest presenter. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.

TREAT Asia Report: You have been a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for five years. Could you describe the highlights of your role so far and what else you hope to accomplish?

James Chau: One highlight that sticks out in my mind is the first trip I did for UNAIDS back in 2009. I went to Bali along with Peng Liyuan, who is now the Chinese First Lady. We worked with civil society to really take on HIV at a time when HIV was—and of course to some extent still is—politically sensitive. I learned that the global AIDS response is made up of every one of us, and it can’t be done alone, but through team work.

The recent gathering in Melbourne for the International AIDS Conference was very difficult because of the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. There were many people from Stop AIDS in Amsterdam and others going to the conference on the flight. I had covered Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur that had disappeared only about sixteen weeks before, so it was very close to my heart. I asked my mentor Bernard Schwartländer (China Country Director at UNAIDS) what I should do at the opening ceremony. And he said the best thing you can do is gather all those emotions together, acknowledge and respect them, but then try to turn that into positive energy.

As for what else I hope to accomplish, I made a pledge that I would do one thing every day for the global response to AIDS, whether it be moderating panels, attending events, or going to methadone clinics or to meetings in Beijing—or much more simply, but I think just as effectively, just speaking about HIV and keeping the issue alive and everybody engaged. 

James Chau speaks during the opening session of the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.

TA Report: Why, as a journalist, did you want to take on this role, and what role do you think the media should play in combatting the global epidemic?

Chau: In China, we are a step behind in terms of the HIV response because HIV came later to the public eye. When you are in television, people see you in their living room or bedroom every night for years, but with that familiarity comes credibility, or the opportunity to earn credibility, with your viewers. The television station I work for has an audience of 85 million. I also try to be very active on social media, and at one point I had 1.7 million followers on Weibo, which is our equivalent of Twitter. It is a tremendous opportunity to put out health messages—not just on World AIDS Day, but all the time.

I always try to find as many news entry points as possible throughout the year. And I don’t just talk about HIV, but also all the social issues linked to it, like gender and men who have sex with men and safer sex, because we can’t fight HIV in isolation. I feel if we keep it up, hearing about HIV will become something that is very much blended in with everyday life.

TA Report: How are the rapid economic transitions occurring in many Asian countries impacting the regional AIDS epidemics and the opportunities for developing a more sustainable response to them?

Chau: Opportunities and challenges always go hand in hand. China contains the biggest chunk of the human family in the world, and the rapid development is creating not only a middle class, but an expanding aspirational middle class—people who want to be part of the iPhone generation, to learn English, to go to the cinema and not just watch pirated DVDs at home. And with that greater disposable income and greater awareness of the world around you, we also have more entry points for meeting people at nightclubs, bars, and restaurants.

I interviewed Diane von Fürstenberg a couple of years ago, and I asked her what she thought of China. She said, ‘China is so special to me because it represents so much of what New York was in the 1970s, when I first moved here.’ She said there was a free spirit about it and that’s why she moved there. She said that if she was in her 20s now, she would move to Beijing. That carefree nature can bring risk, and the problem we are seeing in China is the growing rate of HIV infection, particularly among men who have sex with men. But with political leadership, China has the opportunity to work hard and get it right and be a leader in the AIDS response in the region, not just a beneficiary.

TA Report: According to the latest UNAIDS and WHO reports, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in China is heavily concentrated among men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs. Could you describe how China’s response to the epidemic is evolving, particularly among these two populations?

Chau: About ten years ago, China’s Premier and President came out to a hospital to meet AIDS patients for the first time. And I say AIDS patients, because in those days they were AIDS patients. Now they are people living with HIV who don’t need to be in a hospital. We went from almost zero methadone clinics back in the 2000s to having 200,000 people accessing clinics now. The clinics I’ve visited in Beijing are just incredible, and not just in terms of offering patients methadone treatment, but also finding them social support and being so caring, which you don’t always see in frontline hospitals in China. We have been able to achieve that in a decade thanks to our partnerships with UNAIDS and the United States. The next step is civil society. Civil society in China is there and ready. It just needs to be more broadly supported and seen as an equal partner of government.

Recognizing the human rights aspect of HIV and that drug users and people who have been rejected by their families and societies are the ones we should hold closest is critical. If we want to make sure that people who don’t know their status do know their status and that people who haven’t accessed treatment come forward, we need to make sure that people with HIV are protected, not punished. It is not a political issue. It is simply the fact that we all have the right to live the best life we can, but also need tools from the government and from civil society to bring our dreams to fruition.

TA Report: The reports also estimate that only 33% of HIV-positive adults and 29% of HIV-positive children in the region are currently receiving antiretroviral treatment. What do you think are the largest barriers to treatment access in the Asia-Pacific and how we can overcome them?

Chau: Stigma and discrimination continue to be the biggest obstacles to treatment access. People with HIV are often afraid to go to the general hospital, which is where most people in China receive medical care, because medical professionals discriminate against them. For example, if they have the flu, the doctor may say because of your HIV status you need to seek treatment in an infectious disease hospital, even though what they have come to see them about has nothing to do with HIV. Then people will talk about them and judge them.

There was a recent case of a seven-year-old boy living alone in a house in a forest in extremely rural China. His parents had died of AIDS-related illness, and his grandmother would pop in once a week to make sure he was okay, but the people in the community would not let him go to school and made him live so far away that he lived almost like a hermit.

(From left to right) UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Amr Waked, UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador James Chau, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Annie Lennox during the 2011 U 
UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassadors Amr Waked, James Chau, and Annie Lennox pictured with UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé during the 2011 United Nations High Level Meeting on AIDS

TA Report: Could you describe your impressions of the responses to the epidemic in Asia led by the community of people living with HIV and their advocates?

Chau: People living with HIV know better than anyone else what they need. It is almost condescending for people who are not HIV positive to try to design a response without listening to them or allowing them to dictate some of that response. I also think showing people with HIV on TV and in public service announcements (PSAs) is important. For example, the basketball player Yao Ming did a PSA with Magic Johnson. I have asked a lot of people in China if they are scared of HIV, and many have said, ‘No, because Yao Ming sat down on TV and shared chopsticks with Magic Johnson.’

TA Report: What are similarities and differences that you have observed in the responses and attitudes towards HIV in Europe and the U.S. compared to China?  

Chau: When we were in Washington at the International AIDS Conference in 2012, it was such a reminder of the history of AIDS and how much the United States and the American people were a part of it. They were the first fatalities, but also the first heroes. There are too many to name, like Elizabeth Glaser and Elizabeth Taylor. So little was said about HIV in the beginning, but look at the change. The U.S. has become a pioneer and helped turn the global response around. The Chinese are no different. We may look a little different, carry a different passport, and speak a different language, but we all understand what it feels like to be someone’s brother or sister or son or daughter.

And I think there is a lot to learn from the response in the U.S. You have a Global AIDS Ambassador who is appointed by your President, and that gives AIDS that importance, but individual people also give so much to the response. I think it is something we can all aspire to and use as a yardstick to challenge each other to go further and further. We have certainly pioneered responses in China and will continue to do so. We have more Ph.D.’s coming from Asia, and I am sure many future Nobel laureates in medicine will come from China and elsewhere in Asia. I think we can see an end to AIDS in our lifetime. We have a lot of work still to do, but if we keep pushing each other, we’re going to get it right.