This weekend's papers and TV news in China carried photos of president Hu Jintao shaking the hand of a patient at an AIDS center in Beijing:



The story from People's Daily, in Chinese, is here. The counterpart story, in English from China Daily, is here, under the headline: " President Hu: HIV/AIDS not scary." (Both papers state controlled.)

I could easily have missed it, but in a year and a half here I don't remember seeing other pictures of high Chinese officials actually touching people with HIV/AIDS. Yes, Princess Diana did this twenty years ago in England; and, yes, this summer Hu Jintao had been featured in similar sincere and natural-looking (to me) interactions with mentally-handicapped athletes at the Special Olympics in Shanghai. And, yes, China has been through various stages of denial about its AIDS problems. (Update: I am told that Hu had a similar publicized handshake with an AIDS patient several years ago.)

But this episode struck me as a potentially consequential gesture by Hu, as Diana's certainly was at the time. Not just in China but in many East Asian countries, the stigma of disease or physical "defect" is greater than in much of the West. Again as with Diana, Hu seemed to address it in as effective and personal a way as he could.

And it made me think of something I had heard directly from Bill Clinton on this point. In the summer of 2006, I interviewed him on stage at the Atlantic/Aspen Ideas Festival. Backstage before going on, I told him that two days later I would be moving to Shanghai. He started telling some of his China stories -- including that on a recent post-presidential visit, he had gone to an AIDS clinic and embraced and comforted patients there. He said the Chinese officials completely supported his doing this -- and being shown on TV doing it, for its value in reducing fear of AIDS. But they added that it was difficult for them to take so direct an approach. I believe I am remembering this correctly (it is the type of conversation you tend to remember). It underscores what Hu has done.

Whether these new pictures mark a different stage for China I can't say. But it has to mean something that they got so much airtime on the evening news.

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