Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 18

Beijing is fighting AIDS, but it prefers to fight AIDS activists. And shut down clinics to help the Chinese people afflicted by the disease, the worst in human history.

This June the United Nations released its landmark report on AIDS in the People’s Republic, “China’s Titanic Peril.” The response of China’s public health officials was swift: They closed a private AIDS center that offered counseling to those infected with HIV. “It may be possible that the UN report offended the Chinese government and they decided to take a harsher stance against private groups,” says Wan Yanhai, who ran the now-closed center. Who knows whether Wan is right, but the government’s actions show that it has yet to understand the crisis that will come.

And that crisis, unfortunately, will come. AIDS claims a life every 10 seconds somewhere in the world. Soon the dead will be Chinese. Years of official neglect have permitted HIV to take root throughout the country. “Once you have a certain concentration of it, it will hit the general population,” says Siri Tellier, head of the UN Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in China. And where does Tellier think China stands now? “It’s on the verge of spreading,” she says. So far drug use (68 percent) and blood collection methods (9.7 percent) are the primary means of spread of the virus, at least according to official statistics, but sex is fast catching up. As the virus spreads into the general population, sex will quickly multiply the infection rate. The People’s Republic, according to the UN report, could have more HIV sufferers than any other country in the world “in the near future.”

That conclusion is hardly surprising. A recent poll by China’s State Family Planning Commission found that 17 percent of China’s population had not heard of AIDS. Of those who had, almost three-quarters did not know what caused it. Widespread ignorance of even basic prevention techniques means that HIV will spread like wildfire in the years ahead.

The first weapon against AIDS is education. The central government’s five-year plan hopes to teach the Chinese people what to do. But Beijing’s plans are modest. By 2005 the goal is that 75 percent of urban residents will have been informed of AIDS prevention techniques; the corresponding figure in rural areas, where the disease is more widespread, is 45 percent.

These percentages seem low, especially the rural number. Yet there is a reason why the target for the countryside is so anemic. “What is so much harder is how you get to this vast number of villages that you need to get to,” says Kerstin Leitner. “That is the real challenge.” We can, therefore, sympathize with Chinese officials, who have a hard task in front of them. Nonetheless, the public health risk posed by AIDS is grave, so, despite the difficulty of the task, a greater effort is warranted. On balance, therefore, Beijing officials don’t appear to be trying too hard; maybe they have already given up or perhaps they just don’t care. In any event, they obviously want to be able to say that they met their targets at the end of the period. Why else have they set the bar so low?

The rest of the central government program is a collection of unambitious tasks. It’s actually worse than that, however. As the UN report says, “The Chinese five-year plan continues to present HIV/AIDS as a medical problem, and fails to understand the epidemic as a broader development issue.” Beijing plans to do a better job on blood safety and provide more counseling, but senior officials have neglected important tasks. The United Nations says that “the time is over for talk without action.” But even if Chinese officials do all they set out to accomplish, the actions will not be enough. When it comes to underachieving, China has just set new standards of performance.

Perhaps Chinese officials feel that they don’t have to do anything. “They have told us that we will just die,” said Sui Yan, a villager from Suixian County in Henan Province. Sui contacted HIV through official blood donations. “And so now we’re just waiting for death.” Well, not exactly. This February Sui and more than twenty other peasants delivered a video with their stories to the National People’s Congress in Beijing–and to the United Nations and the media. The video documents the malfeasance of local officials who ran a donation program, even after it was supposed to end.

Villagers in other parts of China are also taking matters into their own hands. Literally. Such as those in the village of Houyang in Henan Province. An official there recently told a crowd of infected peasants, “You are all going to die, one after the other.” The villagers then overturned the official’s white Volkswagen as police looked on, unable to assist. About 80 percent in the village have tested positive for HIV. When they didn’t know about AIDS, they were fatalistic. Now they are angry.

As they are in the village of Xie Yan, particularly the mother, who will die in a couple of years. “At first, if it was in the family, people kept it a secret,” she said. “They didn’t dare talk about it. But now we can see that it’s so widespread. We’re in this together.” There have been sporadic protests spurred by desperation in China. Officials don’t help, and they often try to suppress the problem by whatever means they can. Xie Yan and her neighbors, most of them infected with HIV, protested outside the headquarters of their township last November: Officials had locked up sick villagers as China observed World AIDS day for the first time. “We screamed: ‘People are dying and you do nothing but detain them,’ and ‘What sort of officials are you?'” said Xie Yan.

“The virus is our enemy, not the people fighting it,” says the UN’s Kerstin Leitner. She states an important truth. There are many enemies in this tragedy unfolding in the People’s Republic. The Chinese government is standing in the way, letting its own people suffer needlessly. As officials turn their backs, death spreads across China.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.