Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

Google's China portal hobbles AIDS efforts

While major corporations such as Google and Microsoft fight for a greater market share of one million web surfers in China, efforts to fight the spread of HIV infection and provide AIDS education and treatment are hobbled by government censorship accepted by companies doing business there.

The estimates of HIV and AIDS cases in China (the most populous nation with 1.3 billion inhabitants) vary widely, from the 840,000 estimated by China in 2003 to the estimate of 650,000 of a World Health Organization and the United Nations AIDS report announced last month to the staggering 1.5 million cases based on reports of field workers and activists.

Even the most conservative WHO estimates recognize that 200 more people are infected every day in China and the country needs to dramatically increase AIDS awareness, prevention, and treatment efforts. But the most efficient, cost-effective tool for those efforts to curb the underground and undetected spread of the disease – the Internet – is undercut by cultural bias, political pressure, and government censorship.

"It's just sort of a perfect storm for misinformation and a lot of people are dying," said Robert Bernardo, president of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance in San Francisco.

Homosexuality was removed from the Chinese government's list of psychological diseases in 2001, but cultural bias remains. And although late in 2003 the country launched programs that provide free condoms, methadone, and even antiretroviral drugs, local officials are still reluctant to admit the existence of AIDS and security police often arrest intravenous drug users rather than directing them toward treatment efforts.

When Bernardo worked with the Asian AIDS Project in the 1990s, he found just talking about any of the issues involved was difficult. "When we go deeper into further issues, we're pushing people further into the closet.

"There was a myth for a while that Asians were immune to AIDS," he added. "There is still a perception of it as a white disease."

Chung To, chairman of the Chi Heng Foundation, which helps AIDS orphans in central China, is one of those who believe local officials hide the extent of the disease and that many HIV-infected people are afraid of being truthful because of social stigma.

"The Internet is a very cost-effective, geographically far-reaching tool to spread the AIDS prevention message," To said. "Censorship of it may block an important source of information, especially for vulnerable groups such as gay men, who depend more on the Internet to create their own space.

"I can understand the dilemma. On the one hand, U.S. companies doing business in a foreign country should comply with the local laws. However, for companies like Google, whose success depends a lot on the free flow of information, complying to censorship laws, or anything that would restrict the flow of information, of any particular country may get them a step ahead – but it would hurt them in a long run."

Those personal "spaces" To refers to include blogs and a few hundred tongzhi Web sites that have queer news and information about HIV/AIDS, but those are small, local efforts – and they, too, are subject to government shutdown.

Speaking at a forum on Internet issues in Portugal last week, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, dismissed the effectiveness of government web censorship, saying banned information gets through in personal e-mails, according to an Associated Press report. But last year Microsoft shut down – at the Chinese government's request – a popular political blog. And Google's efforts for years have been hampered by Chinese laws to suppress dissemination of information the government finds objectionable.

In January, Google launched under Chinese license a new search engine: But testing shows it to be a far less effective tool for researching sensitive issues, which could hurt people who think they are getting the most extensive possible information by using it.

For example, a search on and on of the terms "China AIDS gay activism" turned up in both engines an article on Chinese gay and AIDS activist, Wan Yan Hai, as the first link. But the next item to come up on is a Human Rights Watch article on the Chinese crackdown in December of Beijing's first gay and lesbian cultural festival, which labeled the action as an effort "to drive China's gay and lesbian communities underground and to silence open discussions."

That article appears nowhere in the search – nor do any stories about the bust, nor any articles by the Human Rights Watch at all.

"When I heard about the Google issue, I was very disappointed," Bernardo said. "Their goal obviously is to make money – but at what cost? It's on the backs of LGBT people already struggling to get information.

"It's a very hip young progressive company. That's its image, that's how it sells itself. And then it does something like this. I am very disappointed."