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235 Imagining Health Risks: Fear, Fate, Death, and Family in Chinese and American HIV/AIDS Online Discussion Forums Huiling Ding and Jingwen Zhang I n August 2015, a story titled “Nanjing, AIDS Patient Escaped from the Hospital? Do Not Panic” circulated virally on Chinese social media.1 Some readers leaped to extreme conclusions, with one person commenting online, “this is horrible and I am afraid to go out!” Lacking verified sources, and running counter to the preferred, evolving health communication practices of the Communist Party of China (CPC or the Party), the story nonetheless attracted the public’s attention, thus revealing an inconvenient truth: although China has worked on HIV/AIDS prevention for three decades, ignorance, stigma, and ungrounded fear about HIV/AIDS remain entrenched among large sections of the public. While we caution against the spread of this kind of misinformation and fear, concern about how online commentators communicate about HIV/ AIDS is a crucial question within China, for in 2009 the Chinese Ministry of Health announced that HIV/AIDS had surpassed tuberculosis and rabies to become the nation’s leading cause of death and noted a fivefold 236 Huiling Ding and Jingwen Zhang increase in the number of HIV/AIDS deaths from three years earlier.2 Responding to the continued spread of HIV, Chinese President Xi Jinping , in conjunction with the 2013 World AIDS Day, called for legal and scientific prevention and control of HIV/AIDS as well as various social support platforms for carriers and patients.3 Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama launched the HIV Cure Initiative and redirected $100 million into research efforts aimed at curing HIV.4 Together, Presidents Xi and Obama’s policies demonstrate how diseases transcend lived, everyday experiences to acquire sociopolitical force.5 Indeed, as Paula Treichler has shown, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is “simultaneously an epidemic of a transmissible lethal disease and an epidemic of meanings or signification.”6 Public communication about HIV/ AIDS, then, points to both medical and health issues and also to larger cultural questions of how different communities imagine the health of the nation. As we demonstrate below, the discourse communities in the United States and China are so different regarding their conceptions of HIV/AIDS that it is reasonable to argue that China and the United States face different HIV/AIDS epidemics.7 Behind each country’s formal HIV/AIDS policies we find disparate cultural and linguistic histories , meaning the millions of people living with HIV/AIDS, along with their families, friends, and local communities, experience the epidemic differently in China and the United States. We offer this comparative framework, in part, because existing communication studies on HIV/ AIDS have been predominantly contextualized in Western cultures; similar approaches for understanding the disease in China have received much less attention.8 Moreover, because of the stigmatization of HIV/ AIDS in many parts of both China and the United States, online communities form a vital space for discussion and social support in both nations. To date, the few relevant works addressing the communicative dimensions of HIV/AIDS largely focus on media representations and the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS patients.9 A lack of critical discussion of the online discourses may breed ignorance and misunderstanding, leading to greater difficulties in both local and global public health responses. By examining online discourses testifying to the life experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS (and at-risk populations) in both China and the United States, we aim to provide a comparative perspective for HIV/AIDS Online Discussion Forums 237 understanding the epidemic in two sociopolitical systems, health risk ecologies, and complex cultures. To pursue this comparative and cross-cultural analysis, we ask a series of nested questions: How do people living with HIV/AIDS (and at-risk populations) view and cope with the illness and its related risks in online discussion forums? How does culture influence the way HIV/ AIDS health and risk discourses are constructed? And what synecdochical implications may we draw from these online forums about how the participants constitute themselves, their respective governments, and the health of their respective nations? This chapter takes a grassroots approach to these questions by analyzing online posts written by people who are experiencing HIV/AIDS or who are worried they have contracted HIV; these posts provide firsthand, vernacular data about the constructed meanings of HIV/AIDS in specific cultural contexts.10 Our chapter also investigates the roles played by an emerging, participatory public engaging in risk communication and meaning making via...


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