In developed nations, MSM can account for 70% of HIV infections, while in sub-Saharan Africa, which bears the brunt of HIV infections, heterosexual contact is a major route of transmission. But China’s battle with HIV/AIDS is unique. When HIV first surfaced in China in the 1980’s, it was associated largely with drug use and other practices deemed to be of Western origin. AIDS was known as aizibing, meaning the “loving capitalism disease,” and Party officials did not deem it a serious threat to the general population.
When four hemophiliacs were infected with the virus in the late ‘80s by imported Factor VIII, the government prohibited the use of imported blood products. This allowed for the development of a new for-profit blood collection industry based on the exploitation of poor peasants. Throughout the 1990’s blood collection units popped up throughout rural villages in China, paying peasants the equivalent of $5 for blood. Some would give several pints a day in order to feed their families. In order to keep the donors from becoming anemic, blood was returned to donors after removing the plasma, but the blood of multiple donors was commonly mixed before returning it, and no tests for HIV were conducted. While conservative estimates put the number infected through this route of transmission at under 100,000, others argue that more than a million were infected in Henan province alone. To this day, no government officials have been punished, despite the fact that even police and military units would set up collection stations to raise money.
After the backlash to the SARS outbreak in 2003, government officials in Beijing have opened up slightly, but many activists believe official cover-ups are responsible for preventing treatment to millions of sick villagers. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Henan Province on World AIDS Day this year to help spread awareness about the disease, but many sick villagers claim they were put on house arrest in order to prevent him from seeing the true state of the epidemic. In some of the worst areas, the so-called “AIDS villages,” activists believe up to 80% of the residents are infected. Gao Yaojie, a retired physician who has won several human rights awards for her work on uncovering the HIV epidemic in China said this of the Chinese Government:
The government's AIDS policy is superficial. It cannot really be implemented. There is a saying in the countryside. The village tells lies to the township government; the township tells lies to the county government; the county tells lies to the state council; the state council issues a document; the document is read by all levels of the government. After they finish reading it, they go into a restaurant, and the document is never put into practice.
Gao Yaojie’s books on the Aids Villages are banned in Henan Province.
In 2003, the government announced the Four Frees and One Care Policy, promising, among other things, free access to anti-HIV drugs for those who could not afford them. But many of those affected claim that these policies do not make it to the level of local implementation. Villagers protest that many hospitals do not offer HIV testing, or that they sell the drugs for their own profit, but their protests fall on deaf ears. Zhou Xihong, a lawyer who has worked with families in Henan trying to access the promised drugs, complains that the courts routinely dismiss their pleas. “They said AIDS patients can get free treatment, so the court doesn’t have to process their cases,” he said.
The Chinese government is now at a crossroads; their desire to control information must be reckoned with their growing integration into the global community. Reports of police violence and strong-armed tactics to quell protests of HIV activists at the local level suggest that international pressure will be the key to tackling the epidemic among China’s peasants head on. Policy changes enacted early this year provide hope that this needed change may be coming. To allow for better coverage of the upcoming Beijing Olympics, resident correspondents no longer need a government OK to go on reporting trips to provinces. But according to some recent reports, villagers who grant interviews to discuss the HIV epidemic still face intimidation and threats from local officials.
Read more about Gao Yaojie’s efforts in China.