Henan Province still irrational and self-defeating re. AIDS

A commenter pointed me to an article by Xiang Dong, senior producer with BBC World Service. It’s an important story because right now it seems to many that China has finally wised up about AIDS and is being open and responsible on the issue. But is it true?

I had hoped that China had learned some lessons after the outbreak of Sars, but reporting on or talking about HIV and Aids in China remains both difficult and dangerous. The situation is still very sensitive and journalists – whether foreign or local – asking questions are routinely prevented from reaching the areas where people are dying.

Even the outspoken Aids activist Dr Gao Yaojie was concerned. When I telephoned her in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, where hundreds of thousands of people contracted HIV through selling their blood, she told me that her telephone was bugged and that she was being watched to try to stop her revealing the true picture of the HIV/Aids epidemic. I know that many other journalists have been harassed, detained and even expelled from the province.

So much for the new transparency on AIDS.

The article focuses on Xiang’s attempt to interview AIDS victims in a village in Henan province. The level of government harassment against any “outsider” who tries to reach these people is intense, and the locals who assist them are arrested. But the saddest part of the story is how the victims are still treated as second-class citizens, and how any attempt to improve their lives is challenged by local officials:

The following evening we began the 11-hour train journey to Henan. On board, my guide introduced me to two other volunteers and explained that he was setting up an orphanage for children whose parents had died from Aids. He told me of the difficulties he faces in dealing with the local authorities. Local schools won’t accept any of the children so he has been forced to set up the orphanage in a local mosque.

In the wake of World AIDS Day and all the noise China has made regarding its new openness on AIDS, it’s time to see the hype translated into action. Most of the efforts to stop AIDS must ocur at the local level. If this example is systemic, then we’re still pretty close to square one.

Related post: The indescribable tragedy of AIDS in China

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

This comment could well be posted in reply to many of your articles about the negative side of government actions in China, but I’ll put it here.

I think one of the key factors for understanding the Chinese government (both now and former regimes and dynasties) is to realise that one of the central focuses is always luan or chaos. Stability is an abberation, while chaos is the rule. Imagine a thin sheet of ice with a raging sea of chaos under it, just waiting to break out at any moment. If the government relaxes its vigilance for even a moment, this could happen.

So, whether it be cyber-dissidents (or cyber-critics in the case of Liu Di), people revealing health problems (AIDS, SARS etc), the first thought of an administrator is that the disease isn’t the primary danger, it is chaos. There was a very telling comment from one of the Beijing health officials, which unfortunately I only half remember, along the lines that they couldn’t just be open about SARS because it would lead to all sorts of chaos. Of course, the way to cope with AIDS is to educate people, and a response to it that suppresses information just makes matters worse … but deep down, Chinese rulers have a distrust of their own people, and don’t think they can cope with news of that kind in an orderly fashion. Thus the danger from the disease is less significant than the danger of a break-down in law and order.

I think there are even good reasons for this. The long history of China proved that no external threat could ever challenge their state unless it was first pulled apart by internal disorder. The entry of the Manchu into China past an undefended Great Wall is a classic case in point. The Ming soldiers either hadn’t been paid or were too busy dealing with peasant uprisings. If good order was maintained within China, they were invincible and culturally dominant. (Remember that Europe was too far away to be a factor, and even if they had been closer would have posed no serious threat to the Chinese Empire, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution.) Relax your vigilance and let civil disorder break out … and the next thing you know you’ve got civil wars, foreign invasions, and a host of other evils.

This is rather a rambling post … sorry I haven’t got time to put it into a neater form. Oh yeah, and the obligatory please don’t jump down my throat “I don’t necessarily agree with the Chinese government position, I am merely seeking to explain the factors that may lie behind actions that to many outside China seem to be utterly irrational.” Got that? (This comment is not directed at Richard but at other readers.)

December 2, 2003 @ 12:45 pm | Comment

Li En, what you bring up is at the heart of many of my posts. SARS showed that the CCP’s need to place “harmony” or “stability” over all else is so obsessive it can lead to widespread catastrophe and loss of life. It is the fundamental mantra behind everything it does.

So I understand the reasoning behind covering up a potential crisis instead of dealing with it. But my Western mind then asks, Why don’t they learn, especially after SARS, that they are only fooling themselves? They might be able to momentarily preserve stability by denying AIDS, but in so doing they set the stage for a tidal wave as more people get sick. IOW, their denial simply sets them up for something far worse down the road.

I have been reading one book after another on China, and it’s fascinating to see how throughout the 5,000 year empire its rulers took more or less the same approach to issues. In so many ways, the CCP is like the royal families of centuries ago.

I don’t know who you are, Li En, but you are really smart. Thanks for commenting.

December 2, 2003 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Maybe there is a reason for the phrase “Chinese fire drill.”

Anyhow, the cynical person in me says it is just local leaders doing anything to cover their ass–and having the power to cover their ass.

December 2, 2003 @ 2:54 pm | Comment

Thanks Richard … I’m blushing.

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