AIDS activist is RM emergent leader

- Dulce Sanchez () - August 25, 2007 - 12:00am

Chinese-American Chung To, this year’s Ramon Magsaysay awardee for emergent leadership, has been battling AIDS since he witnessed his high school teacher in San Francisco die of the disease when he was 15.

Now in his late 30s, he left a high-flying career as a bank vice president in Hong Kong in 2001 to devote all of his time to the Chi Heng Foundation, which he established in 1998 with some friends. The foundation seeks to raise funds for children in central China orphaned by AIDS – the Chinese government estimates the number to reach 260,000 by 2010 – and promote safer sex and AIDS awareness among “tongzhi,” a Mandarin term meaning “comrade,” used by gays to describe themselves.

Chung was born in Hong Kong but migrated with his family to San Francisco when he was 15. The death of his high school teacher from AIDS left Chung and his classmates in shock.

San Francisco was one of the first cities to be affected by the AIDS epidemic in 1982, and the whole city was in panic mode... Lots of people died mysteriously without anyone knowing why,” Chung told the Hong Kong Tatler.

Even as he continued his studies at Columbia and Harvard, Chung volunteered actively in clubs and organizations to raise funds for AIDS awareness and prevention.

Upon graduating from college, he started his career as an investment banker in Wall Street. Openly gay himself, Chung felt helpless as he watched 10 gay friends die of AIDS as he rose steadily up the ranks.

In 1995, he was offered an opportunity to relocate to Hong Kong.

On frequent business trips to rural China, Chung found that none of the villagers knew anything about HIV.

He realized that China could experience the AIDS disaster that happened in the US, but the consequences would be more serious since China has a larger population and a much less developed healthcare system. It was then that he set up the Chi Heng Foundation.

It was not until 2001 that the world knew about the AIDS epidemic in China, which had killed off many farmers.

“Many children have been impacted by AIDS in central China, where the epidemic began during the early ’90s when vast numbers of poor farmers sold blood in order to earn some extra money,” the foundation said in a statement.

The Chi Heng Foundation – which means “wisdom in action” – noted that in provinces such as Henan, “many blood collection stations used unsterile methods that quickly spread the disease; as a result, many peasants have been infected with HIV. In a number of families, all adults are dead or ailing, leaving their children behind to survive on their own.”

Chung saw that the orphaned children, most of whom are not infected with HIV, lived in dire poverty and faced ostracism from villagers who did not understand AIDS.

Chung decided to leave his career and devote his time to the foundation, which sponsored children affected by AIDS so they could obtain an education while a relative or neighbor adopted them so they could continue to live in the same village.

“I figured that the world could do with one less banker, but these children, they couldn’t wait... If I waited for another five, seven years, I’d have made more money but I wouldn’t be able to help them the same way,” he said. “I had no choice.”

He works more than 100 hours each week on a pro bono basis to raise funds for the more than 4,000 children the foundation is supporting.

Aside from supporting AIDS orphans, Chung is also actively promoting AIDS prevention among MSMs (men who have sex with men), including male sex workers and MSM Internet users in more than 10 cities in China. He also promotes equal rights.

Though homosexuality is no longer considered a crime or a psychiatric illness in China, Chung warned that there is a lot of unprotected sex among China’s estimated 40 million gays, as many as nine percent of whom have HIV due to a lack of knowledge about the virus.

Chung said he is one of a few activists welcome at gay brothels, bars and saunas, and it took him several years to gain their trust.

He has convinced many gay establishments to display information on AIDS and dole out free condoms.

For his work as an AIDS activist, Chung has received a number of awards, including the Ten Outstanding Young Persons award in 2003 and was recognized as one of 10 “Anti-AIDS heroes” in China in 2004. 

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