Celebrity philanthropy: The cultivation of china's HIV/AIDS HEROES

Publication Type:
Celebrity in China, 2010, pp. 85 - 102
Issue Date:
Full metadata record
Files in This Item:
Filename Description Size
Thumbnail2010002712OK.pdf2.16 MB
Adobe PDF
Over the past several decades there has been a rapid increase in celebrity advocacy on issues of Western humanitarian concern, particularly concepts of democracy, human rights and health. This has been facilitated by the establishment of major international development bodies, which became conduits for channelling aid and exerting power after World War II, such as the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. Celebrity advocacy in Euro-American societies also has been assisted by the popularization of television, which provided a new and accessible medium through which celebrities could become known, and establish their fan bases. These events and conditions appear to have provided unique opportunities for celebrity involvement in health and other social, political, economic and environmental issues. They not only mark a turning point in the rise of celebrity presence beyond the silver screens, podiums and platinum charts (Epstein 2005; Richey and Ponte 2008; Turner 2004, 2007) but also serve to highlight the inadequacies of the loose yet widely quoted definition of celebrity as a person 'who is known for [their] well-knownness' (Boorstin 1972: 57). In contemporary society, the platforms and media technologies through which celebrity figures impact on issues of 'public interest' grow by the day. Celebrities now extend their reach beyond spaces traditionally ascribed their area of expertise and are busily involved doing their 'part' for humankind by using their fame for apparent wider community benefit. They mobilize and attract huge global audiences to the particular causes they support. By raising publicity and capital they are able to influence governmental and organizational policy and practices in the distribution of scarce research and aid resources. For example, Midge Ure and Bob Geldof 's massive Live Aid and the later Live 8 concerts raised hundreds of millions of dollars for food aid and encouraged the G8 leaders to address issues of debt relief, trade, aid and HIV/AIDS (Watt and Sharman 2006). Some celebrities have become active in a range of leadership roles in international policy-making. Geldof has political appointments, such as membership in the Commission for Africa and the Africa Progress Panel, which were established to ensure that international commitments to Africa are met ('Africa's development' 2008). Globally, celebrities have increasing political influence and demonstrations of philanthropic spirit are almost a compulsory part of the celebrity's public image. Large development organizations also promote celebrity activism on issues of contemporary disease and poverty as a desirable feature of development practice. The United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF), one of the first organizations to enlist celebrities to promote their mandate in the 1950s through campaigns involving film stars like Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn, explains the development of their celebrity-based ambassadorial system as follows: Fame has some clear benefits in certain roles with UNICEF. Celebrities attract attention, so they are in a position to focus the world's eyes on the needs of children, both in their own countries and by visiting field projects and emergency programmes abroad. They can make direct representations to those with the power to effect change. They can use their talents and fame to fundraise and advocate for children and support UNICEF's mission to ensure every child's right to health, education, equality and protection. ('Goodwill ambassadors' 2006) This institutionalized practice has promoted the phenomena of celebrity activism and fan identification with the consumption of celebrityendorsed activism. Prominent examples of recent individual celebrity advocacy/philanthropy include: TV host Oprah Winfrey's very own 'O philanthropy'; U2 rock star Bono's involvement in orchestrating the (RED)™ brand; and Angelina Jolie's 'ambassadorial' relationship with the UN ('Angelina Jolie's story' 2007; 'O philanthropy' 2007; 'What Red is' 2008). The 'Look to the Stars: The World of Celebrity Giving' website claims that as of 18 September 2008 there were '1, 165 charities, 1, 475 celebrities and counting' involved in causes and organizations to change the world (www. looktothestars.org). In the context of global celebrity activism, this chapter focuses on celebrity mechanisms in China's public health realm. It first examines the emergence of celebrity activism on health issues in the international arena and within the controversial and problematic state management of HIV/AIDS in China. It then turns to the rise of 'HIV/AIDS Heroes' in the People's Republic of China (PRC) where the co-production and consumption of what Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte (2008: 711-29) call 'aid celebrities' now occurs. I focus on one of China's 'AIDS heroes', the actor Pu Cunxin, drawing from over 300 articles written on Pu over the past five years, as well as from personal observation during fieldwork in China in 2003-08, to explore the emergence and significance of his fame within its local context. An examination of Pu Cunxin's media identity reveals some unique features of the operation of the Chinese 'aid celebrity'. Pu's efficacy as a contemporary Chinese 'aid celebrity' does not rely solely on his status as an actor or popular cultural figure - social positions which, until this past century, were often poorly regarded in China. In fact, an examination of his case suggests that the power or impact of an 'aid celebrity' cannot be measured strictly with reference to the realm of 'pop culture' and popular perception (Alberoni 1972; Fong 2005: 119). Pu Cunxin's uniqueness derives from his conformity with state visions of celebrity involvement in the promotion of public health, while simultaneously raising tacit social criticism of state inadequacy in the same arena. He also gains popularity by evoking centuries-old notions of the kinds of heroism and civility that can be expected from the cultivated classes. Pu's status as a Chinese-style 'aid celebrity' thus problematizes Boorstin's well-referenced understanding of celebrity that: 'We can make a celebrity, but we can never make a hero' (1972: 48). © 2010 by Hong Kong University Press, HKU. All Rights Reserved.
Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: