Empowering the Young

AIDS poster in Beijing Subway (Compton & Wright/Flickr)

Jia Ping is a lawyer and strategy development director at the North-East Center for Health and Education in China. He is also chief lawyer at the Friends Project and participates in the MSM Steering Committee in China Mainland.

Mr. Jia works to protect the rights of people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS in China. One of the primary areas of his current work is promoting equal rights for homosexuals.

Mr. Jia also works with NGOs and on a number of other rights issues. Mr. Jia graduated from Ren Min University law school (M.A.) and East China political law school ( B.A.). He was also a visiting scholar at the Columbia University Center for the Study of Human Rights in 2005.

What is your background and how did you become involved in HIV/AIDS?

My name is Jia Ping and I am from China. I have been a legal consultant and the co-founder of Shen Yang Ai Zhi Yuan Zhun Center for Health & Education, which works with the MSM (men who have sex with men) community at the local level in Shenyang City, Liaoning province. I am also deeply involved with the MSM community throughout mainland China. I personally have been the legal consultant for CHAIN (China HIV/AIDS Information Network), and have also done some programs with UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) and UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). I have been studying the HIV/AIDS legal system in China and also the MSM legal system there. On April 27, 2006, I was elected to China's Country Coordinate Mechanism for the Global Fund as a representative for the NGO sector. Years ago I worked as a public interest litigation lawyer and executive director of Tsinghua University's program, the Tsinghua University Constitutional Law and Human Rights Center. It is a center for constitutional reform (and traditional reform) in China. I have been involved in some big cases and some legal reform and petition processes.

I developed a strong interest in the issue of HIV/AIDS in China because I dealt with some anti-discrimination cases like Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. I realized that HIV/AIDS was becoming very serious in China and would be a big challenge in the future. I had some program with Aizhixing Institute in Beijing, and from that point on, I began to get involved in HIV/AIDS. Also at this time I was forced to leave Tsinghua University for some sensitive reasons. Then I joined the Aizhixing Institute . I became Aizhixing's lawyer and researcher and did a lot of research on the MSM population and on the HIV/AIDS legal system in China and anti-discrimination. I began to take on blood transfusion cases and malpractice cases, too. Also I studied TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) and patent law in China and became very much concerned with the situation of HIV/AIDS generic drugs in China. I felt more and more that I should get involved with marginalized populations and vulnerable groups because it is a big challenge for Chinese civil society to empower and promote Chinese political developments. This is what made me feel the desire to work on HIV/AIDS.

I worked in the Institute for almost two years and then became a visiting scholar at the Columbia University Center for Human Rights Study for one semester in New York City. I returned to China in my new career in Shenyang City to found a local gay man's group to set up linkages with local universities. Our goal was to help intellectuals and academics working with grassroots to empower the grassroots -- and to copy this model to other NGO fields. This was a good option for China's grassroots. The Chinese government is still suspicious of the role of NGOs inside China.

What differences have you encountered between working in Beijing at a large-scale NGO like at Tsinghua, and then starting your own NGO at the local level in a small, rural community? For example, what differences are you aware of between rural and urban China and how do these impact work on HIV/AIDS?

Beijing is a city which I lived in for ten years and where I was educated and worked. Beijing has a lot of resources like many big cities - political resources, educational resources, and academic resources. When you work with people, for example in Tsinghua with lawyers, most of them are intellectuals or experts so they are easy to work with and deal with because they have common knowledge. Beijing, as the center of China, is an ambitious city and has a lot of ambitious people from inside and outside of China. Shenyang is also a big city and was once a leading economic city in China -although its economy has collapsed for the past ten years. It is very different because the resources are totally different. The best resources are in Beijing. For example, you could meet a foreign scholar or international NGO any day in Beijing but in Shenyang it could only happen once a year. In Beijing there are a lot of choices compared with other cities or rural areas.

When I work in Shenyang, mostly with grassroots, the MSM population/migrants/sex workers I meet with are very grassroots and usually not very well educated. Sometimes they have very bad manners and their lifestyle is very different from what I encountered in Beijing. There could be a lot of conflicts about things like how to manage money and set up management structures. Some of these groups are very different from educated people. For example, when I send emails to listservs some people argue that I should not send the English version because they do not understand English and it is of no use: "You don't understand this," they say, "You are just sitting above and telling us we are nothing before you." This is very different from my experience working with intellectuals or students and professors, or lawyers and judges. It is a totally different life. These are very much marginalized groups and some of them are HIV positive and most of them are in danger because their behavior is very much random without basic knowledge of HIV/AIDS-many of them think HIV/AIDS is still far away.

It is my impression and my experience that intellectuals very much want to work with grassroots but the Chinese Communist Party worries about this linkage and tries to cut down on this. So I always try to find a way for universities to work with grassroots or make their resources available to the grassroots.

I think we are on the right route but we are at the beginning and there are many challenges and difficulties before us. Support is very little and we need to fight to survive and we still need human resources. We are more and more emerged in the future because this is a totally different life, different people. This is not a bad thing but it means in the future we might have more public space in China. I think that is a good thing, too.

From the perspective of Beijing and how Beijing views and thinks about HIV/AIDS today, what has changed in the debate about HIV/AIDS? In terms of progress, where are you now and how are attitudes different? What are the differences in resources available for treatment and care?

I think most so-called experts are in Beijing but Beijing has not suffered so much. There are less vulnerable populations but it does have some vulnerable groups, like MSM population (maybe ten percent affected today). It is not the worst place attacked by HIV/AIDS in China. The worst place is maybe Henan province, maybe in Yunan province, Guangxi or Xinzhang is maybe the worst with injection drug users or MSM population in small cities or rural areas because they are not so well educated; they do not have information.

Beijing's attitude is expert, academics and professors thinking they are right, making policy and deciding other people's destiny. I think many of them do not understand what happens outside of Beijing but most of the power is held by them. I think the groups outside of Beijing, even though they have less resources and education, they can speak with a real voice. From them people can learn what happens in other parts of China. I think a debate is happening from this point of view. Many people think, like UNAIDS or the central government, that the problem is not so serious, but the realities in other parts of China, what has happened is very serious. This is a big difference.

How are students, coming of age in the new China, now being educated about sex, health, and about HIV in the school system?

This is a reason why the Chinese government should take more responsibility. Until now I personally have never known of seniors in high school or college students having text books on HIV and sex behavior. This information is not very widespread. There is some information in the subway, in newspapers and websites, or on World AIDS Day, but it is not widespread or regular. It is not a strategy as a whole. I think we need to improve this. For a number of years, it has been called for but I think it is different attitudes from different departments that delay this. The education department and the public health department or the propaganda department all have different views- and of course, their working efficiency constitutes part of the reason too.

Sex is very controversial. When you see a condom or a drawing of a sex organ, in China there is still a conservative attitude toward this. Also, the teachers' attitudes have a strong affect. The younger generation born in the 1990s and 1980s, their sex behavior has become more and more open. It is totally different from people born in the '60s and even the '70s. This has been the background of HIV spreading in China. More attention should be paid to this young generation especially with the rapid growth of HIV/AIDS within the general population. We need more change.

Why are you in New York this week and what is your role with the UN?

I have come to New York City because I have joined the United Nations high level meetings on HIV/AIDS. I applied to join the meeting early this year and was approved by the UN. A total of five NGOs from mainland China are part of this meeting. I am not sure who and how many delegates from mainland China are in the delegation from the Chinese government. This is a big problem because government and NGO sector are together in New York but seldom do they communicate and do not know each other. NGOs almost have no chance to communicate with government delegates. I saw that Dr. Wu from CDC (Center for Disease Control) has given a speech, as have several members from NGOs, including me. Except for that, there is no information about the Chinese government's activities. We do not know where they are. I strongly feel that we need to change our attitude and communicate with each other. Maybe that will help us to deal with this disease.

How are people in China getting information about HIV? There has been some controversy in particular about access to information online especially in the context of the MSM community. Is the media getting better on this issue? Is it still discriminatory or hidden?

I think this topic is important because it is very much related to the right of free speech in China and control of the media. I believe there have been a lot of improvements in policy related to HIV/AIDS in China. We still need more improvements because we have only reached the basic criteria.

Years ago, according to China's regulations, HIV/AIDS related issues in the newspaper were written according to the regulations of propaganda departments of the Communist Party and related departments. Now it seems much more open but the attitude has changed from an active crackdown to a passive lack of support. They have set up barriers we have never seen. For example, the topic of HIV/AIDS is sensitive and they can just call you or the media and say you cannot publish this article because the topic is sensitive. Everyday this happens because the media is so controlled. We see these problems with MSM related issues, sex worker issues, IDUs (Injection Drug Users) or needle exchange. Many of these issues still have negative connotations, like MSM is "bad". The law says it is not illegal but the media can say it is bad. Also with sex workers: always you will see the public security bureau will arrest many sex workers to clean the atmosphere of society. They do the same with websites: hundreds of gay men's websites that include educational information on HIV/AIDS related issues are banned because they are regarded as pornographic, erotic things.

In China today, information about HIV/AIDS is still very modest and there is not enough. You could Google it or if there are big events you could find some propaganda paper but not everyday or anything regular; there is not enough of this information. Human behavior changes are very difficult. One article in a paper will not change it. It is not enough, in the subway is not enough - it is far less than enough.

Last month Asia Society hosted the 3rd Annual Asian Dialogue on HIV/AIDS and during the course of discussions, the issue of recreation and desire were brought up as important factors driving infection of the disease in the MSM community. In both India and China, with unbalanced demographics, including a generation of missing women, this will increasingly become an issue as men find alternative forms of company, entertainment and recreation. Is this something that is being discussed in China?

This is somehow a new topic, but not a new topic outside of China. From a demographic point of view, an uneven population between males and females will definitely be a big problem in China's future because there is discrimination against female babies in the one-child policy. I think it is a gender-based violation that happens everyday in China and is widespread. Also social pressure is a very big problem; for example, family member discrimination. I think this will definitely affect HIV/AIDS spreading in China. For example, an uneven population of male to female is somehow fueled by traditional Chinese government policies like land distribution. The land belongs to the government and the state and the farmers can rent the land and sign maybe a ten year contract according to the law. But one rule of this process is that if you have a male baby, you can have land but girls have no land because they are eventually married in another family. Many people only want boys, they do not want girls. Because girls do not have land rights, they have lost a lot of chances because land is everything in rural areas. They are very socially marginalized because they have lost the land but also lost life chances and social sanctity. They are thrown out of the traditional community and they go to the city. Because they are not well educated and there is such a large population in the city, many of them become sex workers and live together with workers in the city. I think the uneven population is in part because of wrong policy. This wrongful policy makes the result even worse and makes the spreading of HIV even worse, too. This could be an example.

As a human rights lawyer you have made your career doing advocacy work around HIV/AIDS, but what do you see as the top issues that people are concerned about? In addition to HIV, what are the top three issues that people are most aware of in China right now?

My personal belief, maybe I am wrong, is treatment and hospital discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS. Because in China there is a shortage of nurses and doctors who know how to treat PLWHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS) so there is a lot of discrimination and they do not get drugs. They do not get free drugs because people do not want to disclose private information. So many people do not ask for free care because of discrimination. I think they are very much marginalized. PLWHA really, really need the best treatment, not just good treatment, and no discrimination. Discrimination not only by society but in hospitals, this is very basic.

Secondly, I think some historic problems especially in Henan province and because of Henan province, Shangxi province: blood transfusion and transfusion of platelets which has led to a huge amount of tragedy because of malpractice. How to solve these historic problems is the Chinese government's challenge and also a social justice to those who suffered and died. This is the second one. It could also be a lesson for the Chinese government's attitude towards realizing social justice.

I think the third one to me, and maybe I am wrong, is the MSM population and where they are and how many are infected with HIV. Nobody knows. They have become the most vulnerable group today attacked by HIV/AIDS. I don't think the most vulnerable is the female sex worker, I think it is the MSM population. It is the fastest growing with HIV/AIDS. The government says it doesn't know but it happens and it is a big threat to the rest of the population, too.

Young people here in America are very interested in this issue and when they think about it, they think about what they can do to make the future better around HIV/AIDS so it is not so much a problem for them when they are older. What can young people in China do, or young people around the world do, to help with this issue?

I am not experienced with this issue. If young generations take responsibility and fight for their rights together and become more empowered, it will definitely benefit China's future - not just with HIV/AIDS but with the political process. The basic barrier for young generations in China to realize this issue is information and the educational system. I believe it is the fault of the Chinese government and the traditional minds of parents and older generations. This is a big, big barrier. It is not the fault of young generations if they do not understand this. It is because older generations did not offer them chances. If we simply call for realization and help people know information, the problem will be how they get that information. They have no resources, especially young girls. In the United States, young girls are also vulnerable, marginalized too compared with men. In China it is even worse. Before I came to this office, I met with a professor and we discussed sex behavior in China which now seems very relaxed and easy in parts of China. When you go to China for business and go to a hotel, many hotels on any street, if it has a sauna, almost always also has a sex service. Why does this happen? This is not only because those girls do not realize their rights. It is because most of them do not have any choice. They are thrown out of their community and they have no choice. Some of them, I believe, maybe get some pleasure from this process but most of them suffer in the long run.

So I believe young generations first should take responsibility but what is key is how to make them take responsibility, how to empower them. This is a key point. Communication from the outside world gives them more choices. I believe it is my mission to make young generations, younger than me, more empowered. I personally believe my work is to create more chances for young guys. Last year when I gave talks in the US, everywhere I said to trust young generations in China. Trusting them gives them more chances in every way in China but it will definitely influence the spread of HIV in China, too.

Interview conducted by Elizabeth Williams, Senior Program Officer on HIV/AIDS