American Sociological Association

Yan Long

Yan Long, University of Michigan
“Constructing Political Actorhood: The Emergence and Transformation of AIDS Advocacy in China, 1989-2012”

Yan Long’s dissertation examines the rise and fall of China’s AIDS activism between 1989 and 2012. The AIDS movement was one of few national-level social movements in China. But it started to crumble in its heyday as a split appeared between urban gay males, female sex workers, and peasants infected via contaminated blood. Long demonstrates that the historical trajectory of Chinese AIDS activism cannot be explained by domestic factors. Rather, she argues, transnational interventions set in motion both the surge and decline of China’s AIDS movement. Her dissertation provides rare insight into how and why transnational institutions succeed or fail in achieving their intended outcomes.

Drawing on longitudinal institutional ethnography and historical archival research, Long conducted research in three sites: transnational AIDS-related organizations, the Chinese government, and grassroots groups. Over six years, she embedded herself in three activist sub-groups—peasants infected via contaminated blood, gay males, and female sex workers, interviewing forty-two government officials in four provinces, as well as ninety-four grassroots organizational leaders, and people living with HIV/AIDS in nineteen cities and villages.

Long shows how the AIDS crisis in China triggered an unprecedented series of transnational health interventions. Intergovernmental organizations, international NGOs, foreign governments, human rights groups, and private philanthropists brought an explosion in material resources, technical support, and activist guidance for local AIDS activists. But, Long argues, transnational AIDS institutions did not simply provide resources and opportunities in China; they also promoted a particular model of AIDS prevention and treatment with specific scripts and modes of action, which, in turn, changed the cultural scripts that informed both the forms of local mobilization and state response toward that mobilization.

One the one hand, the transnational model created openings in a repressive environment that enabled AIDS activism to grow at a crucial early stage. At the same time, this model unwittingly privileged the experiences of urban gay men, while marginalizing female sex workers and peasants infected via blood contamination, thus undermining such openings later. Gay groups assumed leadership and became the representative of AIDS activism at the transnational level, while peasants mostly withdrew from transnational engagement, turned to radicalization, and became further isolated. Female sex workers were displaced completely. On the other hand, while the Chinese state initially dismissed AIDS as a morality issue, the transnational model turned this formerly unnoticed domain into one that was significant to political power, and eventually, ironically, into an arena where the state would attempt to expand its control. The shape of these two processes determined the rise and fall of the AIDS activism.

Bridging the gap between organizational studies and institutional theory, on the one hand, and comparative politics and international relations studies, on the other, Long develops a new conceptual tool—a “conflict-centered institutional framework.” This tool shifts analytical attention from factors, such as power and resources to cultural mechanisms that transmit global precepts to domestic politics. In doing so, she contributes significantly to debates in authoritarian state theory, organizational studies, and global health.

First, Long sheds new light on the surprising post-Cold War persistence of authoritarian regimes. Instead of focusing on conventional domestic factors, she argue that transnational structures and processes, perceived as forces of democratization, might actually contribute to the continuity and transformation of strong authoritarian rule. Second, she suggests new ways to think about the coevolution of transnational institutions and organizations at various levels. Long’s work shows that the conflict between transnational organizations, states, and local communities fuels the emergence and expansion of institutions at the transnational level, which, in turn, changes these actors’ interests and the ways they choose to pursue those interests. Third, she makes an important intervention in the rising field of global health by systematically examining its institutional configuration and critically evaluating its consequences in emerging economies that are challenging the dominance of the affluent West.