Growing up in London in the 1980s, James Chau vividly remembers the first news story he saw on television: the Brighton bombings organized by the IRA, in an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. Although Chau was only 6 years old at the time, he was bitten hard by the journalism bug.
"I knew I wanted to be a journalist right then and there,” says Chau, 34, who now works as a news anchor for Chinese Central Television (known as CCTV). "You have those families who say, ‘We don’t watch TV when we’re having dinner so we can create conversation.’ But in my family, we watched TV all the time, and we talked about what we saw on TV. We had the knowledge that the news is something that affects your life."
Now Chau's trying to affect lives in another, poignant way. Wanting to use his newfound celebrity for good—Chau broadcasts from Beijing, but his show is seen in more than 80 countries, and CCTV is the largest TV network in the world—Chau reached out to the UN. This led to Chau being named China’s first Goodwill Ambassador for UNAIDS, the UN’s advocacy arm for the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. But since it is difficult to become visibly involved with advocacy in China, Chau has had to walk a fine line between speaking out on AIDS and maintaining his role as a journalist and public figure.
"When I first started, I was careful because my government didn’t even openly discuss the AIDS pandemic until this decade," Chau says, “HIV/AIDS brings up a lot of issues. It’s not just a health issue. It’s an issue to do with law, justice, rights, your right to live, and some of these are very sensitive subjects in China.”
Although he grew up in London, Chau’s mother is Indonesian and his father was born in China. Chau knew that he would end up in China, he just wasn’t sure when. Indeed, the ever-stylish Chau, once described by a J. Walter Thompson executive as China’s only “metrosexual,” has taken an unusual path to journalism. He attended Cambridge University, studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music, and interned at Vogue and a British newspaper before moving to Hong Kong in 2001 to join TVB Pearl as a reporter, and later an anchor.
Since joining CCTV in 2004, Chau has interviewed an impressive cast of world leaders including: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon, Muhammad Yunus, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and notorious Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
As Chau became a celebrity in China and a growing number of viewers came to know and trust him, he started questioning whether or not he was contributing to the world, “At the end of a couple of years, what am I going to have to say for myself? What am I going to have to say to my children and for my grandchildren, that I was a little bit famous in one part of the world? And then they’ll say what did you do with that?”
Looking to expand his role, and willing to take the risk, Chau began to incorporate his AIDS work into his news coverage. Throughout the year, he covers AIDS related news including recent developments such as U.S. and China lifting the HIV travel ban, the expansion of maternal-child health programs and the opening of methadone treatment clinics across China. In addition, each year for World AIDS Day, Chau does a special series of interviews with public figures who are involved in the crisis and people who are living with AIDS. He also regularly covers UNAIDS events all around the world. Often Chau is also a speaker at such events as well, at the end of this month he’ll be covering the International AIDS Conference in Washington where he is also moderating multiple sessions.
"I get angry in the studio when I talk about HIV/AIDS,” Chau says, “I’m absolutely convinced that what I believe at certain times is right. I know that a lot of the things I know or that I believe in are up for debate, but I also know that I must stand up for certain things that have to do with justice, and social rights and wrongs.”
Although he is quick to note that he is a journalist first, Chau has managed to combine his activism on AIDS with his broadcasting, and in the process he has given the issue unprecedented coverage in China. “Now it’s my TV work and UNAIDS in conjunction. Anything related to HIV, it’s up there. Any time I want to talk about human rights, it’s going to be up there as well. So now I feel, hey, why should I have an AIDS advocacy life and a CCTV life? Let it all just be one."