In 2001 major changes occurred in responses to HIV and its reporting in both the English – and Chinese-language media. There were media reports in the late 1990s on HIV in south, central and northern China, and also on the blood trade, but without any connection to HIV. The relationship of the blood trade to HIV did not get established until later, when New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal (2000: A4) drew attention to the Chinese government’s admission of the mismanagement of China’s blood supply and when Zhao and Shang (2001), published on the blood trade and HIV in Shaanxi. Following this, the United Nations (UN) issued a report, China’s Titanic Peril, detailing the government action required to stem infections in China’s various at-risk communities (2002). The report estimated national infection rates to be 1.2 million, a number that was predicted to escalate to 10 million if no steps were taken to curb it. Like other international evaluations of China’s HIV problem, this estimate differed wildly from local statistics and accounts (Tucker et al. 2005: 539—47). The UN report did, however, play a key role in encouraging the Chinese government to re-evaluate their accounting (Pisani 2008).
In China, media openness and censorship — be it official or self-imposed (for fear of losing one’s job or being demoted) — and market forces have played a key role in shaping public discourses and government responses to HIV. An additional factor is media ownership. The privatisation of state media in the 1980s threw China’s media open to market forces (Yang 2002: 189—210). This led to an increase in sensational stories which attracted large audiences. This meant that that the impacts of HIV infection were communicated using particular kinds of non-local or non-urban people who often lacked access to treatment or had extravagant lifestyles. This also meant that stories of people suffering from HIV sold well. Images accompanying HIV coverage were often graphic, contrasting with the previous era’s reporting style and its focus on robust figures embodying good socialist values and governance. These practices established a culture of reporting on HIV characterised by the following pattern. Initially, the media was prevented from broadcasting China’s HIV stories; next, limited information was conveyed about the virus through non-local HIV reports, reports on HIV in minority areas, and sensational coverage of China’s blood-selling epidemic. This had a significant impact on the way that both the general public and China’s leaders understood HIV, and paved the way for the media in China to assume a significant public health role. In turn, media coverage affected the policy and public health responses, or lack thereof, to the virus.