According to China’s official stance on its HIV/AIDS epidemic, the prevalence of HIV in the nation is low; however, certain regions and population groups are more heavily affected than others. Since 2005, HIV has mainly been transmitted through sexual contact, followed by needle-sharing when injecting drugs.
Men who have sex with men (MSM) are among the fastest growing “key populations” in the current fight against HIV in China, especially for younger individuals. While public health authorities are careful to distinguish between “gay men” and “MSM” when talking about the issue, the two terms are often used interchangeably in both the media and everyday life. World AIDS Day has historically been an opportunity for affected groups to set the record straight and talk openly about both the progress they have made and the challenges they still face.
On Dec. 1, 2004, China’s Ministry of Health published a landmark white paper on homosexuality, believed to be the first official acknowledgement of the existence of homosexuality in Chinese society. The report estimated that there were between 5 and 10 million sexually active gay men in China. The decision to publish such figures on World AIDS Day likely served to emphasize the grim trend of HIV infection within the homosexual community, particularly among gay men.
The day after the report’s release, state television station CCTV aired a special program titled “Facing Up to Homosexuality Rather Than Ignoring It.” Like the concomitant white paper, the broadcast was believed to be the first-ever discussion of homosexuality aired by China’s most powerful official media outlet. The following year, the CCTV program “News Probe” ran a report titled “In the Name of Life,” which explored the issue of male homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. One participant, a man with the pseudonym Da Wei, made reference to his double identity: “My name is Da Wei. I’m a homosexual, and I’m HIV-positive.”
To date, health authorities have largely focused on the gay community for HIV intervention efforts. Public fears — especially among heterosexuals — have rendered the topic of HIV taboo. Many people also hold negative views of homosexuality, characterizing gay people as promiscuous or perverse and claiming that their behavior runs counter to human nature. Some even say that contracting HIV is a punishment for unacceptable and immoral sexual behavior. On any TV program devoted to homosexuality, HIV is sure to make an appearance, and vice versa.
Over time, an apparent equivalence has been drawn between male homosexuality and HIV. As one sector of society most closely linked to both HIV/AIDS and the MSM community, the public health system is also the one most capable of influencing public discourse on the subject. It therefore wields tremendous power over attitudes toward both HIV and male homosexuality.