Celebrity Philanthropy in China. the political critique of Pu Cunxin’s AIDS heroism

This chapter investigates how morality, politics and fame come together in the celebrity of Pu Cunxin in China. A complex character—a Chinese actor, advocate and Dean who rose through official state-endorsed career paths for entertainers—Pu shows the need to think outside current ways of understanding and theorizing celebrity.

In the context of global celebrity activism, this chapter focuses on celebrity in China’s public health realm. In it, I first examine the emergence of celebrity activism on health issues in the international arena and within the controversial state management of HIV/AIDS in China. I then turn to the rise of ‘AIDS heroes’ in China. Drawing from 300 articles written on Pu and from personal observation during fieldwork during 2003–08, I explore the emergence and significance of his fame within its local context.

I show that Pu’s efficacy as a contemporary ‘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-and cannot be measured strictly with reference to the realm of popular culture and perception. Rather, his case suggests that the power of  ‘aid celebrity’ resides in his ability to evoke centuries-old notions of the kinds of heroism and civility that can be expected from the cultivated classes, and his conformity with state visions of celebrity involvement in the promotion of public health. Combined, these explain his popularity and his tacit social criticism of state inadequacy in the same arena.

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