Pu Cunxin, AIDS' leading man
( 2003-12-02 10:08) (China Daily HK Edition)
He's a household name throughout the country for his outstanding performances as various characters on stage and screen. But in real life he has been cast in the larger-than-life role of goodwill ambassador in China's campaign against HIV/AIDS. The number of HIV carriers in the nation has topped 1.04 million, including 20,000 deaths, while the number of AIDS patients has reached 80,000.
The star of "Shower", an avant-garde film that won him fame as "the sexiest and most responsible man" among Chinese audiences in general and middle-aged women in particular, Pu Cunxin considers the ambassador job a great honour. "I can actually use my fame to do something worthwhile for society by confronting the AIDS scourge," he says.
The first person ever to play such a role in China's public health history, Pu was appointed to the post by the Ministry of Health in 2000 to increase public awareness about the lethal epidemic.
"We singled him out because of his trustworthy image, his reputation of sincerity and, more importantly, his sense of responsibility," says Li Ying, former director of the ministry's Health Education Department. "At first, we weren't sure if he would take the job," Li recalls.
But Pu did so happily. "This is your country asking you to do something for her. I have no right to say 'no', no right not to do it well," asserts the 50-year-old Pu.
Now well-informed about the deadly chronic disease, Pu admits that he, like many others, used to "connect the victims of AIDS to a 'filthy' lifestyle". He says he had only a vague idea what HIV/AIDS even was three years ago when he first entered Beijing You'an Hospital, one of the earliest medical service providers in China to treat AIDS sufferers, to learn more about the disease.
At the time, even science paled before people's fears or ignorance concerning HIV/AIDS. The Ministry of Health asked Pu to hold hands with an AIDS patient in the hospital for a television commercial entitled "We Care, Do You?" to educate the public about what men, specifically, can do in the war against the epidemic.
Some medical workers worried that the request was asking too much of the actor. But Pu did not shun the patients. "I believe science, which tells us you can only contract AIDS in three ways - through blood, via transfusions or sharing infected needles, unprotected sex and from mother-to-children," he says.
In the AIDS ward, Pu did not hesitate to shake hands with Wang Hu (not his real name), a young man living with AIDS. After giving him a hug, Pu encouraged him to cope with his physical condition as best he could. "He even invited the young man to his performance in a stage drama. He treated the patient like his little brother," recalls Li Ying.
Disarmed by Pu's charisma, Wang Hu agreed to work with the famous actor. The country's first AIDS-informative commercial was so compelling that many TV networks in the country are still running it.
Sadly, AIDS claimed the young man's life shortly after the commercial was shot. He never did get to see Pu perform on stage. Pu wrote a mourning message lamenting the loss of the young life and presented bouquets of flowers at Wang's funeral.
The medical community especially appreciate the star's new social identity. "He is a real man, not pretentious. I don't think I could ever be as devoted and compassionate as he is with the infected people, even though I myself am a medical professional," says Zhong Li of the Sichuan Centre of Disease Control and Prevention.
In a society in which many people regard HIV/AIDS as a "dirty disease" and treat the victims as untouchables, Pu has worked hard over the past three years to convince people to be more tolerant towards HIV/AIDS patients and to show greater support for the AIDS-control campaign.
"It has virtually everything to do with everybody in terms of the nation's future. AIDS will cause both economic and social losses if we, the citizens, refuse to take steps to curb the epidemic now," he warns.
Ambassador Pu is well aware of the grim situation regarding the spread of HIV/AIDS: since the first AIDS case was reported in China in 1985, the number of AIDS sufferers in the country has grown at an annual rate of 30 per cent, giving it the second highest rate of infection of all Asian countries.
In fact, AIDS has already ravaged many rural families in the infected areas of China. With his strong sense of mission, Pu Cunxin has set up a personal fund to help kids from affected families who face financial difficulties in going to school. So far, with his sponsorship, Pu is supporting 29 kids from impoverished families to continue their educations.
"I will help them through college or high school at least. I myself didn't get much education. Therefore, I don't want to see our children quitting school simply because they don't have money," he says.
In the meantime, Pu collaborated with CCTV to make a short documentary of a day he spent with an AIDS patient and the man's family in Shaanxi making and eating dumplings together. The intention, Pu says, "is to show the public that normal social contact won't give you AIDS. But ignorance will."
In addition, he travelled across the country to spread knowledge about AIDS. Aside from campaigns arranged by the Ministry of Health, Pu has conducted his own campaigns against HIV/AIDS on film shoots or while performing on tour. "Whenever I stay in a place for a week or longer, I approach the local health authorities and TV network, asking them to make arrangements for me to give a talk on AIDS prevention," he says.
He firmly believes education is the most effective way to eradicate people's ignorance about AIDS and, thus, dispel their fear of the disease. He notices the need for such education, saying "Many people still think that only certain lifestyle habits lead to AIDS."
According to figures released by the State Family Planning Commission in July, 71 per cent of 7,053 people surveyed admitted they knew the epidemic was contagious but had little idea about how it was transmitted.
While shooting China's first AIDS-focused TV drama, "Lost Paradise", in which Pu Cunxin played the protagonist who contracts AIDS from a blood transfusion, director Yu Genggeng recalls that taxi drivers forced them out of their cabs and restaurant owners kicked them out after learning their show was about AIDS.
Such ignorance, Pu notes, is far more harmful and threatening than the virus itself and highlights the urgent need for greater public education.
The theme of World AIDS Day 2003, observed yesterday, was Stigma and Discrimination. Pu says discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS is still pervasive in China.
"Surely, such discrimination is immoral. No one has the right to marginalize an AIDS patient or treat him or her as an outcast who doesn't affect your life," exclaims Pu. "In a way, getting AIDS is no different from contracting any other contagious disease, such as hepatitis-B," he adds.
Discrimination will not protect society, and it could even foster a hatred amongst people with AIDS for society, Pu says.
World AIDS Day, established in 1988, is more than just a special day to raise money, explains Pu. "It reminds us that AIDS could affect you and your family if you remain ignorant and indifferent about the disease and the ways to avoid it."
Experts estimate that the number of HIV carriers in China will climb to 10 million by 2010 if sufficient steps are not taken to check the spread of the disease.
Pu says his role as ambassador is not that of a white-winged angel flying here and there to save people from crucifixion. "I'm just trying my best to do something substantial for the country's AIDS-control mission, which I believe will benefit many generations to come."
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